Feet to the Fire (Little feet; big fire: Roast them tootsies.)

In “Some girls have sex for fun…” I shared some comments from students whose teacher had been set upon me to rebuke me for suggesting that pregnant teens and teen mothers-to-be might be better served if schools strove to instill a sense of responsibility rather than making them feel good about their situation. Of course, I am not suggesting that we browbeat them or humiliate them for past choices, but I think we need not go so far in assuring them of how swell they are for having two or three children before they get out of high school.

Today, I have praise a school administrator who chose the good of students over the fear of students disliking them complaining about them filing lawsuits or accusing them of sexual misconduct. How times have changed since I was in high school and teachers and principals held being thought harsh to be a compliment—that they were doing their respective jobs.

(An assistant principal once reprimanded me for being “rude” to a student who had physically assaulted his father during a parent conference. To be fair, the administrator didn’t flinch when the young an launched himself at his father and I –inappropriately, it seems—intervened. Interestingly, to me at least, in this case, the parent did not tell me to stay out of his son’s business)

The second time I didn’t have my math homework, Miss Nash kept me after school to finish it. I was devastated. The truth was that I had cruised on being smart, polite and cute. By the time I got to high school I was only smart and polite and charm began to fail me.

I still recall the embarrassment, shame and insult of being kept after school, and I still had to tell Mother why I had detention. (That was “back in the day” when parents assumed the teacher was not lying and that their children were long-suffering victims who required their automatic defense.)

I never had to stay after school again because I didn’t do homework. (And Miss Nash did not get a Christmas present.) Compare that with students who never do homework and whose parents ask teachers, “Why are you calling me? He’s your job when he’s in school.”

Thank you. Thank you very much.

There was a time that I advocated for student rights. They seemed victims to teacher and principals who had unbridled power over them. (My excuse is that I had been radicalized as a devoted acolyte of Dwight Allen, a nationally-known advocate of educational innovation and mutual respect in the early 70s.)

As has frequently proven true, my enthusiasms had not provided for envisioning potential ramifications, including that students would assume possession of the asylum.

When the concept of no credit (NC) for excessive absences became popular, those who had initiated the program decided that too many students receiving NCs reflected poorly on the school system, so, not surprisingly, they decided that they would hold teachers responsible for student absences. Why not, they took the blame for everything else, right? If students were doing well, the teachers enjoyed excellent and enlightened leadership; if students failed, the teachers were worthless piles of steaming—um-soup, or something.

So, when too many students (At one point, students who had chronic absences were automatically referred to juvenile court, which didn’t know how to deal with them, so the practice discontinued and the onus returned…Anyone? Oh, yes: teachers, who were called on the threadbare and proverbial carpet to explain why they failed to attract students to their classes. Parents, courts, public opinion and peer pressure had no apparent effect, so, teachers, how are you going to solve this problem?

Of course, I was sufficiently impertinent enough to suggest, nay, overtly state that there would be no solution unless students bought into it. The way most teachers dealt with it was to forget (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) to record absences or at ay rate, to avoid giving an NC (which computes as a failing grade).

Let me take one of my side trips to say that, although it seems that I consider teachers an undeservedly abused group, as a teacher I had very little respect for about 80 percent of my colleagues. More honestly, I held them in unmitigated contempt, either because they were lazy, they were bullies, or they were incompetent. Oh I have stories….I also should add that my attitude might have had something to do with my reputation as arrogant, pompous and intimidating, to which I only can respond with a meek, “Moi?”

As hard as it is for literate parents to believe (Arrogant assumption being that the people I am talking about don’t—or can’t—read columns, essays or blogs—in many families—well, in Alexandria more often than not that means a single mother and her offspring) usually no one in the home cared or felt competent or strong enough to worry themselves about it. For whatever reason, there came a time that had students appear in class so infrequently that I literally did not recognize them. It was a matter of finally putting a face to a name.

The administration typically took the path of resistance. Most administrators. What did they have to do to keep their jobs? Stay off the radar. What does a school administrator have to do to be removed? So, they keep their heads doesn’t.

Case in point: I was aggressively pursuing the case of a student who had been excessively absent when I received a change of class notification—without prior discussion—informing me that the student requested a transfer because she “couldn’t learn” in my class, which she had missed half the time and to which she was consistently and significantly tardy to the others. When she learned that absence and tardy accounting did not reboot in the new class, she transferred again…to a different high school.

The transfer without substantive reason became an epidemic. Students frequently requested transfer to a specific teacher—the English teacher next door whose classes filled out true-false and multiple choice “ditto” sheets every day, instead of my class, which required journals, daily writing assignments, book reports, etc. as one student loudly complained: “We never do nuthin’ but reading and writing; why don;t we ever do English?” (I later learned that by English, she meant grammar exercises.)

My own stepson, a chronic class-cutter whom I was delighted to have in my senior English class because he had to attend or face me at home, appeared one day with a transfer in hand. He had claimed that we had a personality conflict. I was astonished because he and I enjoyed such a close relationship that I heard him describe me as more of a friend than a step-father, and when his mother remarried, he stayed with me until his own marriage. The assistant principal granted the transfer without talking to me, and the young man dropped out of school by the end of the year.

When administrators allow students to teacher-shop, they contribute to—in fact, compound the problem. It allows students to shirk responsibility while undermining and demoralizing teachers…but the principals keep on rolling to retirement, happy as chlamydias.

In one quarter, 16 of my students received failing grade. I might slip and say I “gave” 16 Fs, but I didn’t they earned them—or whatever the inverse is of that verb. At any rate, I was called to the principal’s office for a chat. (For a student, that might be accurate. Teachers know they are in trouble.)

This time I was in for a surprise. Instead of Mr. Bonaparte, with whom I had long suffered, this recently appointed administrator had actually been a teacher for more than 20 years before becoming an administrator. The worst administrators, in my experience, had taught one or two years at the beginning of their careers and then promptly forgot about the challenges of the classroom when they became administrators and only had time to keep one eye on central administration and career advancement.

Ms Paine, a heavyset black woman whom students (and I) loved did tell me to inflate or scale grades, as had usually been the case. She said that we needed to work together to make students accountable.

I think I just sat and looked at her a while trying to make sense of what she had said. She waited me out.

She suggested being the bad guy. I started looking for the cameras. She proposed that each time a student came to class unprepared I should send him to her to arrange a two-hour study session on Saturday morning. Cries of “But I have to baby-sit!” (work, make new mommies) did not sway her. She was adamant.

The first day, 40 students came to class without their homework. Each was assigned to a tw0-hour detention. Word spread like wild rumors and slackers grew wide-eyed at the outrage.

The next day, 20 students came to class without homework, but many of them arranged to get the work to me by the end of the day…and did so.

Many students find it easy to shrug off a failing grade, but taking away their own time is an invasion off their privacy. It makes a connection between school and “real life.”

For the third assignment, only one student had to make the long walk to Ms Paine. One. Only three days into this whacky idea of teacher-administrator collaborating on making students accountable. Now, students come by to double-check on assignments before leaving for the day. All it took was one administrator with the guts and desire to do the right thing by students.

I related the story to Phyllis Shlafly when I was her guest on Eagle Forum. Her reaction: “Then punishment does work.” I said that I would prefer to think of it as operant conditioning or behavior modification. We could call detention negative reinforcement. But, yes, I guess Phyllis was right. Punishment works.


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