Tommy Raskin looks at the issues that he sees as spawning disrespect in school.
I have long wondered why there is so much disrespect in school. Students frequently scoff at the teachers trying to help them, and teachers sometimes humiliate their students. Children squabble amongst themselves, compete relentlessly for high marks and cheat on tests, and educators berate students for their laziness, insubordination, and ungratefulness. Why?
No single social factor can alone explain this troubling phenomenon. It’s true that students are too infrequently taught civility by their guardians, that poverty demoralizes children and diverts their energies away from academics, and that some students vie for the “bad kid” image to impress their peers. But disrespect seems deeply anchored at school beyond what students may bring from home.
The schooling structure itself too often disrespects students. To see this pervasive reality, we have to drop the idea that school is only incidentally flawed, with a bad teacher here and there, and instead accept its systemic disregard for the thoughts, feelings and lives of the young people it’s designed to educate. In confronting the culture of unkindness, our starting point shouldn’t be the first crass words angry students utter but rather the conditions producing such unpleasantness, for students at the average American school are rightly, if inarticulately, outraged by the coercion, harassment, and drudgery to which they are subjected by school authorities. When educational administrations remove these affronts to student self-actualization, they will leave the classroom conducive to authentic respect between teachers and students.
The “big deal,” if to some people it’s still unclear, is that school produces an inevitably combustible combination of anti-democratic practice with intimate interaction between the powerful and powerless. I don’t really care that my crossing guard is undemocratically elected, for our interaction is minimal (and usually pleasant) during the 15 seconds I’m under her jurisdiction. In contrast, teachers subject students to inescapable tedium for eight hours daily and are, at least theoretically, responsible for their students’ intellectual growth into adulthood. Would we, in a democracy, ever ask grown-ups to blindly cede that much of their time, power, and future prospects to people and projects over which they have so little control?
There isn’t much work in kindergarten, but as the school years progress, teachers assign readings from which many students perceive no gain and that often spawn resentment and despondency. Outside of class, students are reproached for their tardiness shuffling from classroom to classroom, for not presenting a “hall pass” upon request, for wearing their hats indoors, and so on. At my public schools, the dress code and hall pass rules, even if justifiable on paper, were used as constant excuses for teachers to insensitively shout down students and belittle them. In middle school, an unfamiliar teacher ordered that I “stop!” and then stalled me for five minutes because she couldn’t discern the date I had written on my hall pass.
So, yes, at certain points, dispirited kids openly text in class and groan to their teachers that “there’s too much work” and that “school sucks” and that “none of this information matters!” Like many students, I decried these petty resistances as impolite and counterproductive, but I also appreciated the grievances underlying them. School is a bummer when you’re constantly bombarded with negative affronts outside the classroom and have little say over what you learn within it.
Those of us who care about teachers should thus outspokenly promote democratic education, by which I mean education in which students themselves participate actively, for this is the type of schooling towards which students naturally feel the least enmity. Unsurprisingly, students don’t resist lessons when they have a say over what they’re being taught. In democratic schools, any dress code and hall pass rules coexist with restrictions on teacher belligerence and are under the purview of teacher-student courts to which students can address their qualms about arbitrary harassment. Students should also be unionized so that they can jointly and forcefully direct their suggestions for grading policies, absence policies, and curricular subjects to their teachers. In other words, children should actually be given some power to craft the schools into which the state forces them.
A student’s snide remark to a teacher is neither the beginning nor the end of disrespect. The student’s disrespect of the teacher is indefensible, as is the school’s disrespect of the student who, after asking for an explanation, cannot get a clear answer as to why he must participate in a certain activity, why he cannot walk the hallways without being made into an object of suspicion, and why he cannot study the subject matter of most interest to him.
Underlying respect ultimately are non-coercion, cooperation, and honest communication. When administrators adopt them over petty harassment and surveillance, schools will cease to be combat zones of incivility and insult.
Photo: europedistrict / flickr