Having had friends and acquaintances who taught in schools around New York City, stories vary widely about how students and teachers treat each other. Some offer gushing stories of student effort and appreciation. Most, however, offer some variation of this anonymous teacher’s take.
I am a math teacher at a middle school in Flushing, Queens, and two months ago, I was helping one of my students work out an arithmetic problem when he called me a “f–kin’ asshole.” When I asked for an apology, he shoved a chair at me and stormed out.
Five minutes later, an administrator brought the student back to class. She informed me that she had called his parents and that he could return.
And what did I do? I went on teaching.
When a story like this is raised, the reaction is often to rationalize why students treat a teacher this way. If teachers fail to show respect for their students, the student will return the favor, they say.
If I tell a student to put away her phone, the conversation usually goes something like this:
Student: “Leave me the f–k alone.”
Me: “I’m going to call your parents.”
Student: “I don’t give a crap. My parents will just agree with me.”
Then maybe she’ll throw a desk across the room for good measure.
Are the teachers not sufficiently engaging or are the students so bold as to not care? Even if this reflects a small percentage of students, how do the students who desire to learn overcome the disruption?
In our world of unicorns riding on rainbows, all ills are the product of external causes, and all students live blameless lives since they are merely the outcome of systemic failure. Whether that’s true is of dubious relevance in the day-to-day survival in a classroom. What’s a teacher to do when a kid tells her to “Leave me the f–k alone”? What’s a student to do when she wants to get into Harvard plus be capable of doing subtraction?
A teacher can take a few moments, depending on the willingness of a recalcitrant student to listen, to explain intersectionality and the value of education to the student’s future career prospects.
Every now and then, it works.
But try explaining life to the kid who repeatedly got reprimanded this year — mostly for sexual harassment.
And all he got was a string of in-house suspensions.
Discipline isn’t in vogue these days, although some schools manage to do the job of instilling an appreciation in education in their students where others fail miserably. Why this is so varies and can be hard to explain, as there are many moving parts from the parents’ perspective toward education to the culture students bring into the classroom. And the teacher’s ability to gain the respect of students.
But these lil’ angels who are oppressed by society and not responsible for the misery their futures hold aren’t doing themselves any favors either. And we’re not doing them any favors by excusing this behavior. There are some bourgeois values that are worth retaining, despite the tears of the passionate, and discipline in schools and respect for teachers are among them.