Overly-prescriptive curriculum and a maniacal focus on conformity can leave teachers feeling replaceable and stifled. Not to mention the students themselves…
I went to a strict high school. It was a private, religious institution, and as such took a rather traditional approach to the educating of young people.
A place where “children” were to be seen and not heard.
The officials had instituted an elaborate system of points to track and punish behavioral infractions. This was known as “The Code,” an appropriately Kafkaesque name for the multitude of ways one could warrant punishment through the labyrinthine maze of rules.
Gum chewing: .5 points.
Tardiness: 0 points, but ½ percentage grade drop per class, for every tardy over 7/semester.
Cheating: 6 points, immediate suspension.
Dress Code: .5 points.
Drinking alcohol: 9 points, suspension, eligible for expulsion.
And so on. I’m listing just a few big ones here, but every conceivable problematic behavior fell somewhere on The Code point system, and every teacher pledged to dutifully dole out points, regardless of circumstance.
Let me say: I hate this system.
For starters, there was never any individualized attention to circumstance. Students whose parents struggled to drop them off on time saw their GPA forever impacted due to excessive tardies.
There is nothing fair in that.
You’ll also notice that getting caught with gum could eventually stack up into enough points to get one suspended, if not ultimately expelled. Imagine that: getting expelled for chewing gum.
As teenagers are biologically destined to test the boundaries, such rigid expectations of behavioral perfection seem tailor-made to make young people fail.
And there are consequences to that, not least of which is crushing the joy of learning with an excessive focus on rule-keeping and procedure.
One of the absolute best aspects of the Texas public schools I was lucky enough to work for was the freedom granted to yours truly, to teach and manage my class however I saw fit.
As long as the students were learning, and no one was getting hurt, I was free to have rowdy, engaged classes, or quiet, pensive classes, or chatty, collaborative classes.
And in seven years of teaching, I had all three, plus any number of combinations more.
There were rules for general behavior, don’t get me wrong. We suffered through a few rocky years of “No Tolerance” policies on the bullying front. (I am 100% against bullying, and also 100% against punishing kids for joking around with their friends. No Tolerance accomplishes neither the goal of correcting nastiness, nor allows for teenagers to be normal adolescents with a sometimes questionable sense of humor).
But within the class, I could set up my lessons and teach them however I wanted.
And here’s the irony: that was at a public school.
Charter schools, at least many of the more famous ones, were meant to be creative, quirky little labs of learning.
But instead, many charters are increasingly scripting lesson plans, and behavior management, to ensure maximum hegemony. I’m sure the point is to ensure maximum learning.
But I feel dubious about that kind of system, because it does not allow for the natural uniqueness of each teacher and each student, let alone the dynamic of each class. (And I would note here that boys often struggle in the highly-structured environment of many charter schools, perhaps more so than girls).
Throughout the years teaching, there were rowdy groups of students who needed clear structure and strict rules, and there were quiet groups of students who needed prodding to open up and discuss literature, and there were some special groups who just came together in ways best described as magic, like when that one team (San Antonio Spurs come to mind) plays off each member’s strengths so perfectly, the learning becomes symphonic.
All of those groups require slightly to severely different tactics.
A one-size-fits-all policy often ends up fitting no one, to paraphrase another teacher.
It’s something worth considering as we strive towards better education for our kids.
Photo: Flickr/ US Department of Education