Saturday, September 22, 2007

In defense of crotchety old teachers

As I was checking out blogs the other day, I wandered over to TMAO's site. Anyone who has read a few of both of our posts probably understands that TMAO and I don't exactly share identical philosophies.

I open my blog with this statement: "Public schools are important, their job is becoming increasingly difficult, and they are doing a much better job than they are given credit for." It's tough to reconcile that with TMAO's introduction: "We must reject the ideology of the "achievement gap" that absolves adults of their responsibility and implies student culpability in continued under-performance. The student achievement gap is merely the effect of a much larger and more debilitating chasm: The Educator Achievement Gap. We must erase the distance between the type of teachers we are, and the type of teachers they need us to be."

TMAO's post dealt with one by Mamacita from Schiess Weekly titled "Anyone Can Tell You Why So Many of Us Are Leaving the Profession," in which she passionately complains about misbehaving and under-performing students. TMAO had absolutely no sympathy for Mamacita (this should come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with him) and most of the commenters were also critical of her. I think it's fair to say that TMAO and those who share his philosophy view Mamacita as a crotchety old teacher who doesn't belong in education. I read TMAO's entire post before I ever turned to Mamacita's, but knowing how differently TMAO and I see things, I guessed that I was probably going to agree with Mamacita. I was right.

Although I disagree with TMAO about a lot of things, I admire him. It sounds like he is one of those rare teachers who is able to deal effectively with kids who most of us aren't. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I think teachers like him are worth their weight in gold. Nevertheless, I can really identify with what Mamacita had to say. After all, I am kind of a crotchety old teacher, myself.

Here is what Mamacita said about disruptive students:

Most teachers who leave the profession, leave because almost all of the attention, most of the perks, most of the privileges, and most of the allowances are given to the students who least deserve it: the disruptive kids. In other words, these loud, bratty, obnoxious kids are being rewarded for their disgusting behavior, so why should they clean up their act? I wouldn't. Not if doing my own thing meant I'd still get to have and do everything little goody two-shoes next to me got to have and do...

Me, personally, I think that if there are any perks to be handed out, they should go to students who have earned them. No earn? No get. Ever.

Why should a student bother to behave himself if he knows he's going to get a limo ride and a Pizza Hut lunch for bringing a pencil three days in a row? I wouldn't.

Why would a student exert himself to do any work, or allow anyone else in the classroom to do anything either, if he knows he's going to be passed to the next grade anyway? Yes, I am a firm believer in holding back any student who can't do it, won't do it, or any combination thereof.

I don't want my tiny second-grade-size daughter seated next to a hulking ballistic cursing disruptive 15-year-old, but if everyone is REQUIRED to behave properly, there wouldn't be any problems even then, now would there? Because while a student can't help the "hulking," there are no viable excuses for being ballistic, cursing, or disruptive. EVER. Any person of any age who behaves in such a way should be removed immediately, not at the end of the day but IMMEDIATELY, escorted out by the police if the parent can't be reached, and locked away where he/she can no longer deny other children their right to an education. That our schools have lowered themselves to becoming daycare centers for kids who are not required to behave themselves is a national disgrace. The schools who allow it are a disgrace, the parents who allow it are a disgrace, and the kids themselves are a disgrace. That's right; I'm labeling children. After a certain age, they know how nice people behave. Life is full of choices. CHOICES. Door #1: Thank you for being a nice person who behaves properly. You may stay and be educated, that your life's choices might increase. Door #2: Are you sure you want this door? Absolutely sure? Very well. Get out and do not set foot near the school grounds ever again. You are bringing down the entire population of students. Good riddance. Billy Madison speech. Door #3: Whine. Scream. Curse. Threaten. Hire a lawyer. Make promises. We don't care. Get out. And take your obnoxious kid with you...

Until the bullies and the disrupters and the violent and the kids who have no respect for learning are removed from our schools, our schools can not be what the free public schools were meant to be: places where all who wish to learn, may learn all they wish.

It's hard to learn when 25 of the 38 kids in your classroom have important Letters of the Alphabet in their files, prohibiting the teacher from requiring any work or proper behavior. It's hard to learn when it's so loud you can't hear yourself think, and that awful boy next to you keeps stealing your stuff and hitting you on the arm and laughing. He can't help it, poor thing, it's in his IEP that nobody may do anything that would lower his self-esteem.

On the first day of school, let the rules be known and let the penalties for disregarding the rules be known. Let there be no exceptions to these penalties. Require a signed document from every family, admitting understanding of these policies. Require an additional signature under the paragraph that spells out the "no exceptions" policy. From Day One, Period One, expect and require good behavior from all students. Instantly remove any kid that chooses to be an ass. Ass-behavior is always a personal choice...

Wow! I don't know about you, but I have trouble finding much in this rant that I disagree with. That wasn't the case, however, for TMAO and some of the commenters on his post. Here is some of what TMAO had to say about it:

I can't even begin to explain the all-over grossness I felt while reading this. Suffice to say I'm not down with the sentiment expressed therein... Generally, the flight of teachers concerns me, but if the teachers that leave schools are the ones who think it is not their job to motivate, not their job to convince, not their job to get their hands dirty, I got a couple of inches of Bushmills I'll raise in their honor, and applaud the decision to go sell insurance.

A number of commenters on TMAO's post echoed his sentiments, but I don't see Mamacita's frustration as coming from a person who is unwilling to try to motivate, convince, or get her hands dirty. Let's face it, there are teachers who aren't willing to do those things, and TMAO is right--they should get out of the business. But Mamacita's rant sounded to me like it was coming from someone who really cared. I say that because I have felt that way myself--in fact there have been times in the last two weeks that I've felt like that--and I know I care.

It is a wonderful thing to care about "troubled kids." I do care about the "troubled kids" I get in my classes, and I do try to motivate and convince them. But I also care about all those other kids, and I want to be able to do my job effectively. I care when it becomes nearly impossible for me to teach kids who are willing to follow rules and try because "troubled kids" are screwing around so much. I care when I see some of those "bubble kids" who could go either way getting dragged down to the level of the worst kids. I have six classes with as many as 31 kids in them, and we have five minutes between classes. That doesn't leave a lot of time for one on one motivating, although I try to do it when I can. I don't even want to think about what it would be like if I had 38 in a class, and I know there are many classroom teachers who face that and worse with regularity.

I have said it before, and I will say it again: I am convinced that the best thing we could do for the great majority of those "troubled kids" is to make it clear that we will not tolerate disruptive behavior and lack of effort. We have so many kids in public schools who behave poorly and make no effort because we allow them to do so. Are we really doing them any favors in the long run with our tolerance? And Mamacita is right--they drag everybody down in the process. If all kids knew they had to behave, and they knew they had to try, there would be very, very few who wouldn't. And what would we do with those few who wouldn't? Here's what Mamacita says:

Where should these kids be removed to? To be perfectly honest, I don't care. Just get them away from the good kids. Don't good kids have rights, too? I'm sick and tired of disruptive kids having the most rights. SICK AND TIRED of it. It's long past time to give the majority of attention and all things positive to kids who choose to behave properly and kids who want to learn.

I can't say it any better than that!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a young(er) - 5 years in the field - I have many of the same feelings as you and Mamacita. I see the kids who cheat egregiously allowed to take a second try with no late penalties. I see kids who don't complete work required to pass courses taken out of class to complete work in the office with no late penalties. I see students who are sent down to the office for administrative discipline sent back to the class they disrupted in the same hour as they are kicked out. And I have seen the other students in the class come to realise that all their hard work doesn't get them any further ahead than the disruptive kids.

9/22/2007 6:41 PM  
Blogger Kilian Betlach said...

Take the post in balance, Dennis.

Yes, there are probably many schools that, in seeking to change misbehavior rather than punish it, are too lenient for too long. No argument here.

If that was the main point of the post you and have I both linked to now, it was lost in the barrage of labels ("good" vs "bad"), out and out name-calling ("shitty kids"), hostility toward kids with IEPs, disparagement of parents and families, the assertion that these so-called horrors are the norm, and all the back-handed condescention that if you disagree, it's because you lack the what some call "experience," but what I'm starting to see is merely hours-logged.

I don't want to make a generation or age-gap thing out of any this, which I think your title does. This is about ideology. The crotchety old teachers I work with bring it every damn day, and have for many years, without succumbing to the bouts of "wisdom" in the post you admire.

9/22/2007 6:57 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ian, you and I definitely seem to be on the same page.

TMAO, I want to reiterate that even though we seem to see things differently, I have great respect for you and the very real concern you seem to have for the kids you work with. I think you'd probably agree that in every article or post there is a certain amount of "reading into" that takes place. I think you and I read very different things into Mamacita's post. For example, I know that most kids with IEP's have legitimate problems, and I think we should bend over backwards to help them. But I have also seen IEPs milked by some kids and their parents, and that can be incredibly frustrating. I'm assuming that's what Mamacita was referring to and that she wasn't intending to disparage every kid with an IEP. In the same way, I also think most parents are pretty good, but some are horrible. Unfortunately, dealing with a few horrible ones can make one forget that all those good ones exist. When Mamacita starts ripping on "parents," I can identify with those feelings.

I'm not sure that I'm any more "correct" than you in the way I read that post, but that's the way I saw it.

9/23/2007 2:54 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

By the way, TMAO, I really wasn't trying to turn this into a generational thing, either. On a number of occasions I have expressed sympathy to our own ESL and special ed. teachers for having to deal with "crotchety old" teachers like me, so for this post, the term seemed to fit.

9/23/2007 3:03 AM  
Blogger andbrooke said...

I can identify with both viewpoints- TMAO and Mamacita. I think they're both right. I can see how TMAO would assume that Mamacita was one of the teachers that makes everyone's life harder (which she isn't). But really, what did she say that wasn't true? And what has TMAO said about teacher quality that isn't true? If we could eliminate problems of entitlement and brattiness on the parent/student end, it would solve a lot of problems. If we could eliminate problems with teacher quality and retention, that would also solve a lot of problems. I, for one, am stuck somewhere in the middle.

9/23/2007 12:45 PM  
Blogger Mamacita (The REAL one) said...

I thank you for your post, and I thank you for reading mine accurately.

Most of all, I thank you for standing up for the students who most deserve it: the kids who come to school to learn.

Is this a generational thing? Not really. There are teachers who have never seen a school that's been 'taken over' by poor administrators and disruptive kids with a well-honed sense of entitlement; how could they possibly understand what most of us have to put up with daily? I still maintain that, sadly, such elysian schools are the exception now, and that in many schools, the inmates have taken over.

I agree with TMAO that teachers who don't care about their students, care right down to the marrow of their bones, don't belong in the profession. But what TMAO needs to learn is the difference between someone who cares enough to point out the cracks in the system and cry to the heavens that they be removed so the vast majority of our kids (who are the good ones) might be served. . . and someone who doesn't seem to understand that many classrooms have in them a population whose main goal seems to be to make sure nobody is able to learn anything, and that this population doesn't care about learning and that they are bringing everyone else down.

As for motivation: nobody can control somebody else's. We can only try to inspire and interest them enough to motivate themselves. This can't be done if the person sitting next to you keeps knocking everything off your desk, pinching your arm until it's covered with bruises, screaming, yelling, throwing things, and threatening to do worse if you name names. And carrying through with the threat, knowing that nobody in the building dares do a thing to him no matter what he does.

This must not be allowed. Ever.

I have no grudges against TMAO, either. I just think he hasn't yet seen enough, and I wish he would never have to. I left no links on my own blog, even though he put mine on his, because I didn't want to send a crowd his direction. It would not have done any good. His opinion is already set, until he's got a few more years under his belt.

I would be very interested in his opinion of this same matter, in twenty years.

Again, sir, I thank you.

9/23/2007 1:20 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mamacita, thank YOU!

Andbrooke, I think you're right. I read Mamacita's post and because of my experiences, I pictured some of those classrooms that she was writing about. TMAO read the same post, and because of his experiences, he pictured some of those teachers who constantly gripe about the kids, but do little themselves to help anybody. They are there only to collect a paycheck. Unfortunately, those teachers do exist, so the major disagreement I had with TMAO on this one is that I think he had Mamacita pegged wrong.

9/23/2007 4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I don't believe this is a generational thing at all; I am in my late 20's and feel exactly as Mamacita does. From being a student to student teaching to teaching middle school to high school, every experience has continually reinforced the same feeling: that it would be AMAZING what schools could do for children if the approximately 5% of trouble makers simply weren't there or faced real, substantial consequences for their actions. Nothing infuriates me more than to have a classroom of twenty or so students who want to learn stuck with five or six who are juniors in age, freshmen in credits, and middle school in maturity and self control. Maybe I could do more to reach those children. But the chances of success are relatively low, and effort is relatively high, which means I must divert attention from the eager to the unwilling. Why should those students get a mediocre education so I could clear up time and energy to go beg a few others to do the bare minimum?

I do, however, believe that the kids shouldn't be totally blamed. So much of education thinking and curriculum planning is based on the naive assumption that all children are at least average in academic ability. The same curriculum is inflicted upon students regardless of their ability, interests, future career plans, etc. Increasingly, states are basing their policy on the crazy idea that all children are college material. This "Yale or jail" lunacy is causing massive distortions throughout education. I've got very mediocre kids going off to college where they struggle and often drop out. Who cares? The university got a couple of semesters of heavily subsidized tuition and the kid got a nice pile of debt. But we all feel better about ourselves, don't we? They were spared a career where they had to use their hands! Meanwhile, children who could benefit from college prep are tossed into chaotic classrooms, and the fortunate few to be identified as exceptionally bright can go into a GT program for two weeks before it's cut to make money in the budget for a new dropout prevention scheme.

9/23/2007 5:14 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Cranky, I agree with both of your points. Regarding your first point, I spent about two hours this afternoon working on grades, and much of that time was devoted to making sure I identified any kids who have dropped into failing territory this week, because their parents must be informed. Last week I sent out 29 deficiency notices for all kids earning C- and below. I offered to include any of the parents on my American History address group so I can email them and let them know in advance what our schedule will be for each week. Total number of responses: a whopping four. Are we spending too much time and attention on our low-end kids? Gee, what would make anyone think that?

9/23/2007 5:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another thought I had, especially after I went to TMAO's blog: I think attitudes like those expressed in the blurb at the top are in the end a large part of what holds back any realistic reform of the educational system. The idea that it's not the kids, but rather our failure to be "the teachers those kids need" represents a continuation of the narcissistic trend of maximizing teacher importance. In fact, study after study after study show the enormous impact of outside the school factors, yet we persist in reacting to continuously worsening socioeconomic trends by believing we can finesse the issue with innovative pedagogy and professional development. The "teachers change lives" mantra has been chanted by so many for so long to justify higher pay (which I have no problem with), but there is a problem when you begin to believe your own propaganda. The teaching profession, in a way, has painted itself into a corner by constantly saying "Teachers make the biggest difference, so pay us more and attract more talent." But really, the profession is making promises it can't really keep. I do believe, strongly, that teachers impact students. But the frequency and intensity is highly variable; some children you affect like water on a rock, making but little changes slowly over time. Others you shape in more profound ways. The notion, however, that students are like an unshaped block of marble falling into the hands of people who could be Michelangelos if they only were paid more/weren't so lazy/take your pick of why, is just ludicrous. Instead, to continue the analogy of sculpture, think of it this way. Students arrive to us as marble blocks already significantly shaped: by parents, by peers, by culture, and by genetics. Even when it's our turn to wield the chisel, it is a group effort, and often you have another sculptor--maybe unknown to you--who actively undoes whatever you do.

This is the context that I teach in. I always am happy to see myself make a significant difference. But I do not invest my self worth as a teacher and individual in believing that those will happen frequently, or at all. Rather, little improvements and small nuggets of advice; a kind word of encouragement here or there, or perhaps some other "minor miracle"; these are what keep you satisfied and keep you sane. I fear that ones like TMAO are too hung up on making huge differences that when they don't make as much of a change as they hope for, they become disillusioned and forget all of the little things they did that helped more than they ever realized. Often more good comes from evolution than ever comes from revolution.

9/23/2007 7:46 PM  
Blogger Kilian Betlach said...

Hi Cranky,

Your wrote: "In fact, study after study after study show the enormous impact of outside the school factors..."

I'll match you study for study that says the single most important factor is teacher quality. I believe those factors beacuse it is the only thing that justifies why one class full of poor, at-risk, English Language Learners makes growth while another class of poor, at-risk, English Language Learners across the street does not.

That said, I've heard your argument before. Considered it well. I'd be willing to give it far more credence on the day that poor Black and Brown kids have the same quality teachers that suburban White kids do. I'd be willing to give it far more credence when the American education system defaults to poor, Black and Brown kids the way it defaults to White kids.

I'd also be a lot more down for your evolution argument if public education for poor, Black and Brown kids were growing legs and lungs, rather than reverting to a single-cell amorphous mess. Given the degression of things, I much prefer to be out in the street with my fist in the air, than waiting for the kind of cell mutation that will suddenly set things right.

Hi Dennis,

You wrote: "Are we spending too much time and attention on our low-end kids?"

I answer: No. Not nearly enough.

If you brought your kid to the doctor with a ruptured spleen, how would you want the doctor to allocate time between your kid and my kid (who's got a bloody nose)? What kind of judgments would you want the doctor to make about your parenting skills given the fact that you allowed your child's spleen to burst, while I managed to hold down the fort with a mere bloody nose? How would you feel if the doctor gave my kid more attention because his life expectancy, in the moment, was far sunnier than your kid?

We intervene at the breaking points. We go first to the areas of greatest need. We ought to understand this as our primary responsibility, rather than endlessly exclaiming over the kids who, essentially, don't need us. Now, some are not down for that understanding of the job. That's fine. There are plenty of boutique schools and affluent neighborhoods where one can more easily avoid those you label "troubled." But let's not pretend that none of this is our responsibility, buying in to the mantra of the ineffective teacher, saying essential, "I taught it; it's up to them to learn it."

Let's be better than that.

9/29/2007 12:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wouldn't it be better to send the kid with the ruptured spleen to an internalist who knows better how to treat that kind of thing than to expect a GP to handle everything from a bloody nose to a ruptured spleen?

Also, you say that higher-achieving students "essentially don't need us"... how does that jive with your earlier assertion that teacher quality is the "single most important factor"?

9/29/2007 9:43 AM  
Blogger Kilian Betlach said...

No doubt, Ian. Can we replicate that system in ed?

9/29/2007 4:51 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I'll have to call this the Lazarus post. I thought it was dead, but suddenly it came back to life.

TMAO, two things. First of all, as much as I agree with Cranky, I actually think he was too hard on you. If I understand correctly, you work with sixty-some kids. I would want someone in your position with a strong belief in the ability of a teacher to make a big difference in the lives of individual kids. (Believe me, that is not to imply that I think you've got it easier than anybody else.) I might have missed something, but I'm assuming that Cranky is a high school classroom teacher. If that's the case, and if he's like me in having 150+ kids every day coming through his classroom over a few hours with five or less minutes in-between, then I can definitely see where he's coming from. It tends to make you feel very limited in your ability to make that big difference.

The other thing is that I don't buy your doctor analogy. The biggest problem I see at my level is kids who refuse to try. There are certainly kids like this for whom outside intervention can make a difference, but eventually it comes down to a choice that they will have to make.

9/30/2007 4:25 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

The biggest problem I see at my level is kids who refuse to try. There are certainly kids like this for whom outside intervention can make a difference, but eventually it comes down to a choice that they will have to make.

No doubt, the choice was made for them a long time ago, Dennis. It would be a major improvement if they had a choice by the time they got to you.

At this point, if some chose to tune out then so be it. But the choice should be their's.

9/30/2007 12:06 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

KD, if you are saying that by the time they are sophomores, the choice has been taken out of their hands, I completely disagree with you.

9/30/2007 5:08 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, if they've made it to sophomore year by doing little to nothing, why should they change their ways now? They have been reinforced for doing no work for nine years, what's their reward for doing work now? What is their reward for doing work now? Figure out what that is and then determine if that reward is reinforcing for these students. The answer is that the reward is not reinforcing for them and that's why they choose to do nothing, gambling that they will be socially promoted once again like they've been the previous nine years. It's not rocket surgery.

10/01/2007 4:43 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

"No doubt, the choice was made for them a long time ago, Dennis. It would be a major improvement if they had a choice by the time they got to you."

KD, when you put it this way, I disagreed, because there is plenty of choice involved. But when you point out that these kids have made it to tenth grade while making little effort for at least some of those years, you take the wind right out of my sails. Although there are factors outside of our school systems pushing us to allow this to happen, most of the blame falls squarely on our shoulders. It is an embarrassment, and there is no way I can defend it. I don't think anyone else can, either.

10/01/2007 3:00 PM  
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