Problems teachers face

A teacher in Pennsylvania was suspended because she wrote in her blog that her (middle-class) students are “rude, disengaged, lazy whiners. They curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying.” Since people strongly prefer comfortable thoughts to the truth, it is more likely that she was suspended for causing discomfort, than for overstating the case.

In fact, teachers do face a wide variety of difficult, often insurmountable, problems with their students. Though they are acted out by students, they are actually social problems:

  • There is a deep anti-intellectual bias permeating our entire society, making anything that smacks of intellect anathema to nearly everyone. I have even had a PhD archeologist with 30 years in academia tell me emphatically that he was “no f***ing intellectual”! The term “intellectual” is considered so negative that intellectuals are hesitant to call themselves intellectuals. It is no wonder, then, that scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and thinkers in general are not admired, let alone seen as examples for emulation.
  • There is a specifically anti-science attitude that is widespread and growing. This manifests itself most often as opposition to the acceptance of evolution, of global warming, and of modern medicine. The anti-science attitude also manifests itself more subtly as general anti-rationalism, which can seep into any subject matter. So why take any subject seriously?
  • Among some Black students there is the attitude that doing well in school is “acting White”, and that this is bad. It should be obvious that this is a self-destructive and self-deprecating attitude. It is less obvious, but important to recognize, that doing well is not “acting White”, but rather “acting main-stream”.
  • The most convincing message that politicians, businessmen and pundits can muster concerning the value of education is that students need to do well (especially in science, engineering, and technology) because it is good for the economy. How inspiring can this be to any child or adolescent?
  • In-school behavioral “battles” are fought wherever the line is drawn. When I was in public school, the line was drawn at chewing gum and sassing. Any misbehavior beyond this was simply beyond argument: you were tossed out. If the line is drawn at possession of weapons or drugs, that is where the battles are fought. Lesser infractions–rudeness, sassing, bullying, indolence–are all accommodated. Only fools would prefer to argue with students and parents about weapons rather than chewing gum, but that is where many school administrators have allowed the line to be drawn.
  • Many young people are enfranchised beyond the wildest imaginings of previous generations, with cars, spending money, mobility, sex, phones, targeted entertainments, and much else. It is no wonder that they think they somehow “deserve” these and whatever else they can get. More important, there is nothing withheld from them as rewards for becoming adults, let alone for adhering to the processes, including education, of growing up.
  • Because so many students tend to already have what they want, it is hard to argue that education, or any particular area of study, is actually “relevant’. There is no contrast, no barrier to overcome, between now and the future. Therefore, what they now know seems sufficient.
  • Educational theory frequently ignores proven principles of teaching and learning, while simultaneously capitulating to fads that are attractive to students and their parents, and teachers are forced to comply. This shows up in many ways. Every new technology is introduced, unproven, into the classroom, more often than not merely distracting everyone from what really works. Computers are the latest intrusion. Or educators try to compete against distracting entertainments by emulating them–using “educational” video games, for example. This capitulation only serves to validate students’ views of what is important or worthwhile.

What can we expect from students when all these factors play themselves out in the classroom? Perhaps we can expect students to be “rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.” Perhaps we should not be surprised when they “curse, discuss drugs, talk back, argue for grades, complain about everything, fancy themselves entitled to whatever they desire, and are just generally annoying.”

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