A high school teacher friend told me last night that a 16 year-old student threw a desk at her. A big desk lifted off the floor. She’s about five feet tall. When I asked how the student was disciplined, my friend laughed and said that she was warned by other teachers to get out of this kid’s way since he was on a behavior plan. My friend also told me she was forbidden from failing a different student who had not completed a single assignment all semester because of the school’s fear of a lawsuit. “Just give him a C- and let him pass,” the principal instructed.
It’s hardly news that teacher morale is at a 20-year low. The usual suspects are being trotted out: budget cuts, low salaries, poor retention, and a culture of disparagement and blame. Politicians and parents have a long history of holding teachers responsible for things they’d rather not address themselves, and the recent cry for “standards” and “accountability” has left teachers holding the bag.
But there’s another factor that doesn’t get much attention. Teachers are often afraid of their students and they’re afraid of the parents, too. There’s been a surge in disruptive children and lawsuits against teachers in recent years, and this fear has changed the way teachers practice. They are compromising their professional standards on a daily basis to avoid confrontation and general misery in the classroom.
I wonder if the enormous escalation in spending for special education and social services has resulted in significantly healthier or happier or even better educated kids. Something else is missing. It’s become a fashion in education to assert that we don’t have to cure poverty before curing schools. All we need are “transformational” teachers to lead the charge. Serious and influential people have bought this kool-aid: Bill Gates, Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, and so on. But if we can’t even get a grip on the basics — keeping hallways safe and holding kids to unbelievably basic expectations – how can we possibly expect teachers to transform society with a magic wand? Teachers aren’t wizards.