Commenter “Charles” sounds off with an Evans-Manning entry on the Willful Defiance thread, based on his wife’s experience teaching in a rough public school:
Teachers are not babysitters. They’re not parole officers. They’re not clergy. They’re not social workers. They’re not parents. Their job is to teach. The problem with the worst public schools is the kids that are in them and the complete and utter disfunction which produced those kids. If that statement offends you, then I can only conclude that you either 1) have little to no practical experience with the bottom-of-the-barrel public schools discussed here, or 2) you have some other agenda.
First, a true story to illustrate some problems. My wife – a white woman – was a teacher in a school whose student population is about 95-97% black and poor. Most of them would definitely be part of the “black underclass” that has been discussed here recently. My wife taught high school math. Classes with kids anywhere from 9th grade to 12th grade. One day in class, one of the male students stood up in class, tossed his desk aside, and started choking a female student. To be clear, I’m talking hands around her neck, choking her to death. My wife immediately started pulling the guy off the girl, with a couple of other female students helping. After they pulled him off, the guy turned around and started swinging at them. He struck my wife a couple times – glancing blows off her arm, but a physical assault nonetheless. As all of this was going on, no male students intervened, and several of them were laughing and yelling “choke that b*tch! choke that b*tch!” After security (yes, they have armed police officers at the school) had hauled the kid off, the female students went to talk to the guidance counselor, as they were understandably shaken. When my wife asked the principal if the guy was going to be expelled, the principal was non-committal. So, my wife let the principal know that he would not return to her classroom, or else they would have to find another math teacher in the middle of the year. They gave the kid two weeks suspension. After it was over, my wife arrives at her classroom to find several female students standing outside, afraid to go in because the guy who had tried to choke one of them out was back. So, my wife walked directly to the principal’s office with those female students, tells him that they are afraid to go in the room because of that guy, and then – outside of earshot of the students – tells the principal once again that she would walk out right now and never come back if they didn’t remove that guy from her classroom. They assigned him to a different class, and that’s it.
Second true story: My wife’s students were talking about a friend of theirs – also a student at the school, but not my wife’s student – who had been arrested and charged with murder. He and one or two other men were charged with robbing and murdering another man at a card game. The man who had been killed was an illegal immigrant. My wife’s students could not believe that someone could get life in jail for murdering another human being. They were incredulous, asking my wife, “Really? He can really go to jail just for killing someone?” They then commented, and here’s the kicker, “But he wasn’t even a citizen!”
This is the culture of the worst public schools in our state. You have kids with absolutely no concept of the value of human life, no respect for other people, no concept of families or having parents, no concept of personal property, no concept of the value of work or money. They are like toddlers who have not been conditioned or trained in any way to behave like a civilized human being. Their parents are only parents in the biological sense. Some of these kids come from situations that remind me of a scene from David Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Streets, the book that preceded The Wire. In the high-rise projects, there were people living in such abject filth that I thought when I read it, these are people who have given up on, or never even known, what it is that makes us human and separates us from animals. Like the people you see on the hoarders shows, or the men and women who debase themselves in pornography, or morbidly obese people who can’t leave their home.
There is absolutely nothing that public schools can do to fix this problem.
Teachers may be able to help one student out of a hundred, but they’re damn sure not going to get any help from administrators, parents, or the community. At my wife’s school, teachers got in trouble for sending students to the office. If a kid was being disruptive, the administrators said it was the teacher’s fault for not “engaging” them and getting on their level. The whole mindset was that it was the job of the teachers to get down in the muck on the level of these children, rather than trying to elevate these kids to a level where they can be functional members of society. The administrators wouldn’t expel kids because then they would lose money. They would rarely suspend kids for the same reason. They wouldn’t even want to discipline kids or have them referred to the principal because it reflected poorly on their state statistics that determine the school’s rating. My wife was pressured to pass kids who were not even close to a D. And she gave these kids TONS of opportunities to raise their grade. But even doing something as simple as sitting for 40 minutes and trying to work on a worksheet was too much to demand of these functional infants.
If my tone sounds bitter, that’s because I am bitter. My wife is a compassionate, kind, loving woman. And she came home in tears every day for the better part of nine months because of the abuse those kids heaped on her, and complete and utter lack of support from the imbeciles running the asylum. She was accused of being a racist on a daily basis just because she had draconian classroom rules such as “respect other people,” “don’t get up and run around the room yelling and screaming during class,” or “don’t use abusive and profane language.” And the administrators even said in the mandated teacher training that such rules were wrong because they tried to force black students to conform to “white” culture. Because, you know, black people don’t care about respecting others or learning, right?
So, what’s the solution? While my wife was in this hell, my solution was: “F*ck it.” Frankly, I have to fight really hard to keep that impulse down, as I’m still bitter over how my wife was treated. I know that I have a responsibility to love and serve the people in my community, and I know that Christ would be down in the muck with them, tending to the lepers, embracing the social rejects. But I am firmly convinced that the public school system is not the way to go about this type of ministry or service. You can’t turn around the Titanic with a rudder built for a john boat. And it’s not fair to the kids and families in that system who want to get an education to continue to view public schools as our catch-all means of fixing the permanent underclass, of eliminating cyclical poverty. You’ve got to do it one person at a time, one family at a time, through real relationships.
My sister Ruthie taught in a good public school, but a number of her kids over the years came to school with serious problems that got in the way of their learning. I write in Little Way about a time early in her career in which I was home visiting, and helping her grade papers. I was mystified as to why so many of her students (sixth graders) were missing easy answers on tests. She told me the individual stories of each kid, and in every case we were talking about a child in a broken family, at best; often there was a far more chaotic situation going on. She told me that some of these kids start out so far behind, in terms of a stable home life, that just getting to school with their shoes tied is a triumph. And she told me that for more than a few of these kids, their teachers were the only adults they saw all day that showed them anything like love, compassion, and nurture. For the book, I interviewed one of these former students, a girl who Ruthie took a personal interest in and helped, and who now has a great career and family life far away from her dysfunctional family here in our town. The point is, Ruthie told me in detail how she and her fellow teachers, in order to be able to teach many of these kids, had to first be like social workers.
Most of the kids who had these struggles back then were black, as I recall, but they weren’t all black. What they had in common was chaotic family life. One of the kids in that particular sixth grade class — this was 1994 or thereabouts — was a white kid whose mother dropped him off on his grandparents’ front porch on Christmas Eve two years earlier, and disappeared. Abandoned him. Ruthie said the pitiful little boy had suffered emotional trauma from that, and acted out from it at school. His grades were poor. She did the best she could with him, and God knows Ruthie had a huge heart for these kids, and seemingly infinite reserves of patience. Still, there were more than a few kids like him, and only so many hours in the day.
I remember thinking how unjust it is to teachers and to the other students that so many parents were abandoning their duties to their children and offloading raising and civilizing their children to the schools. This, I think, is an example of our fraying culture, including the loss of a concept of common standards, and a sense of duty towards children and others. A friend of mine has done missionary work in Haiti. She told me that the problem we face in many of our public schools has very little to do with material poverty, and certainly not with race. She’s seen black children who have almost nothing, who are far, far poorer than American kids who count as poor in our country, sitting in Haitian classrooms eager to learn.
How do they do it? Why is their culture — the set of ideas they carry around in their head, and the habits they carry in their hearts — different from our own?
In our country, this often correlates with race, but correlation is not causation. Reader Richard Johnson’s wife teaches white working-class kids in a small town in southeastern Iowa, and has a lot of the same problems, as he reports in a blog comment on the Willful Defiance thread. What are the common factors? Relative poverty, yes, but I’m willing to bet it has more to do with fatherlessness and badly fragmented families, and secondarily with the loss of a commonly shared set of cultural values with the power to bind and direct.