Monday, March 21, 2011

Nice Teacher?

Adults must fill a vital role in the education and lives of young people. Kids do not know what is best in education any more than they instinctively know how to drive cars, shoot guns, use explosives, or climb on cliffs. Caring adults do not allow kids to play with guns, or fireworks, or give them free reign to drive the car at any speed or to any place. Every summer, I watch hundreds of young people go rappelling and climbing for the first time. Many are frightened, but their instructors bind them into the belay lines, coax them over the edge of the cliff or start them up its face, with careful coaching and a firm hand on the safety rope. On the rock, kids discover their potential; they do things they had not imagined, and they grow and develop lifelong interests and values. The ropes that bind them, the rules, the equipment, and the experienced climbers provide an excellent metaphor for the role schoolteachers and school policies should play in the life of students. Rules are the ropes that set us free. However, if ropes are allowed to rot, or are improperly used, if equipment is abused, if the rules are not followed, disaster will result. It is the same in the school. If the staff allowed climbers to break the rules, someone would die, and they would be criminally liable for disaster. If teachers ignore the rules set to provide for the education of students, they are likewise culpable.
There are reasons for requiring students to be to class on time. Students learn responsibility and the habit of promptness which will stand them in good stead when they go to work. Tardiness costs their employers money and late comers their jobs. Students who come in late disrupt the class and force teachers to re-present material; wasting the time of other students. Showing up late is rude, shows a lack of respect for teachers, fellow students, education in general, and the class in particular. Penalties for tardiness benefit students. Teachers who do not enforce them de-value their own instruction, and harm students by teaching them bad habits.
There are reasons for requiring students to attend class. Absence shows disrespect to teachers, the classes, and to education in general. Each teacher should justly feel that their class is the most important academic experience available for a student. If missed, students cannot make up the instruction, discussion, or practice they would have received under their teacher’s guidance. If what goes on in class is not important we should do away with the class.
Students must also be required to learn; they must actually pass. The things schools teach are valuable to students. If they FAIL to learn their lessons, they harm themselves and they hurt others. Taxpayers provide education to prepare citizens to rule this free country, and to take care of their responsibilities to themselves, and their families. Education prevents kids from becoming a burden to those who have learned how to work. Education prepares all for life-long learning. Students are given a chance at successful lives. Passing kids without requiring them to follow the rules, perpetuates the disastrous practice of graduating students who do not know anything. Teachers, who do not require their students to learn in order to pass, undermine the goals and efforts of parents who want their children to actually learn. Parents want their children to become responsible, to be able to get up and do something with their lives. Parents want their children to be able do hard things. Parents want their children in school every day and working hard. Requiring students to earn passing grades supports these goals. The rules that make successful lives possible are as necessary as the rules that make lives safe on the mountain side.
Schools have rules to set our students free to learn: grades, standards and policies that make learning possible even for those who are afraid or ignorant, for those who have never tasted the joy of accomplishment. When students are able to subvert these rules they are harmed. There is an underground data bank, a well-used cheat-sheet, which enables students to destroy their chance to learn. Central in this damning information is the list of names of the teachers who let students break the rules and enable failure. It is like a list of Doctors who will hand out drugs to addicts. If teachers and administrators do their jobs, they can avert the disastrous falls that destroy students. Students who lack motivation to do what is best can be coaxed and cajoled into actions which will let them taste the freedom earned by effort. They will never learn these skills if we, as a school community, continue to let them harm themselves. Even teachers who “do it right” can do nothing if they are undermined by teachers who enable students to do it wrong.
Schools have a citizenship policy that attempts to get students to class and there on time. Many teachers follow this policy, but there are teachers who do not give U’s, some do not even take role. Even worse, there are teachers who will excuse U’s assigned in other classes without consequence to the student. The names of these enablers are added to “the list”; undermining the efforts of teachers who wish to help their students by enforcing the rules. The value of the U system is in its ability to coerce students with consequences they dislike more than attending class or coming to class on time. They have to pay money and do service work in order to clear the U’s so they can graduate. However, if some teachers excuse U’s without consequence, the entire system is undermined.
Credits are required to graduate and because a high school diploma still has some value in our society, the threat of failing a class can compel students to do their work. Two scams enable savvy students to make a mockery of this value to themselves and to society. First, students soon learn and broadcast the names of teachers who require little work to pass. Students take their classes, not to learn but to escape the need to learn. Second, students have found out that they can get passing grades from some teachers with a “sob story”, with no pretense of earning the credit. A student recently bragged to me of convincing a teacher to give credit in a required class the student had failed, with what he called a “sob story”. He went on to boast that he would be able to do the same in another required class, because the “teacher is nice” – the code words for dupe. If there is no effort required to get credit in classes, class credit has no value.
If climbing instructors could be scammed into loosening the ropes as easily as some teachers are manipulated into breaking the rules that set our students free to learn, there would be death and disaster. Teachers who refuse to enforce the rules, the policies that lead students to learn and earn, cause disaster and destroy the effectiveness of our schools. We must develop a standard of consistency and quality in the administration of the rules and policies for the benefit and protection of our students.
In order to safely operate the climbing program, or, for that matter, the boating, shooting, or hiking programs at Boy Scout Camp, there are rules and policies that all staff must follow. There are even rules for safely chopping wood and building fires. If a climbing instructor allows a kid to go over the cliff without a belay line; a life guard allowed a boy into the deep water without a swim check, or into a canoe without a life jacket they are negligent. If a Range officer allowed kids down range while others were still firing, or failed to account for every round before calling all clear; they would not be permitted to keep their position. It is not fear of being fired that motivates a good crew to quality service. They are trained to know the dangers; they are smart, and take responsibility for the goals all share. There are systems in place to check compliance, but good people gladly fulfill just requirements because they take pride in their work, take pride in the activities they offer, and care about the young people they serve. I know that good teachers are the same. We must take the steps that will ensure quality for all.
There needs to be a discussion initiated at every high school through which the rules for Citizenship and Academic Credit are clarified and explained. Teachers must buy into their responsibility to enforce these rules. Our Schools need standards set and systems put in place to ensure that policies are being enforced by all teachers so the damning list of dupes can be expunged forever. There should be consequences for teachers who refuse to apply the rules, because they allow students to harm their education by failing to live up to the requirements requisite for real success and they harm the entire school. Once we come to understand the purpose and process we can fill our vital role in education and meet these obligations to the benefit of our students.

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