When students are unteachable

I began my public-school career four years ago as an English teacher at a Baltimore high school. If I went in with any false notions about who is responsible for the failure in public schools, these were cleared up at my first faculty meeting: "The students are failing," scolded an administrator. "It's not the administrators' fault. It's not the parents' fault. And it's certainly not the students' fault. It's your fault. You're bad teachers." Not one teacher contradicted her.

The popular assumption is that classroom discipline, control, and learning are the results of, not the prerequisites to, good teaching.

But what does a teacher do if she captivates all but one student who shouts insults at her, throws projectiles across the room, and paralyzes progress as effectively as a dog running headlong into rush-hour traffic? Not much, if she wants to maintain her reputation and job. After all, teachers are required to help all students learn, according to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education.

What incapacitates all good teachers and students is the degree to which some children resist learning.

One disruptive boy refused to have a conference with me, and laughed when I handed him a detention.

I informed his mother that her son came to class unprepared, made obscene gestures, and had recently begun eating chicken wings in class and throwing the bones around the classroom.

"What kind of teacher are you that you'd let a kid throw chicken wings around your classroom?" she accused. Rather than admit my inability to control her almost-grown son, I asked her, "What kind of mother are you that you'd raise a child who would throw chicken wings around my classroom?"

As the mother stormed down the school hall shouting obscenities at me, I reflected on how I'm not responsible, mom's not responsible, and the kid is still tossing chicken bones around the classroom.

When I first heard a student in a public high school class yell, "Hey, you all! We don't have to do nuthin'. The counselor says no one ain't gonna fail," I remembered my friend who was fired for being a "bad teacher" because she failed too many students.

I thought about the desperate administrators and teachers in New York, Maryland, and Texas who were caught raising students' poor test scores on standardized tests. Mostly I just felt sad for the boy who learned that he didn't "have to do nuthin' " and could disrupt class because the adults in his life could do nothing to prevent his outbursts.

Competent teachers become ineffective when they begin sacrificing academic standards for some semblance of control: couching the periodic table in a rap song, performing magic tricks, pacifying unruly students with movies, and bribing them with extra credit. Teachers choose to lower standards rather than risk an administrative reprimand, a lawsuit, or a dreaded "can't control the class" written on their annual review form.

One physical education teacher in Maryland last year attempted to thwart some students' unsportsmanlike behavior. He was abruptly dismissed and threatened with jail after several junior high honor students falsely accused him of sexual abuse because, they later admitted, they didn't like his attitude.

Although most are false, abuse allegations are frequently made against Maryland teachers, says Susan W. Russell, the chief council for the Maryland State Teachers Association, adding that she strongly suspects that's the case across the country.

A letter from the National Council of Teachers of English begins, "As an educator concerned with the escalating costs of lawsuits, you deserve to know about the outstanding benefits of the Educators Professional Liability Plan." No wonder teachers hesitate to enforce standards.

Teachers today are more qualified than those in any other time in our educational history. Therefore, they ought to be more successful at teaching and controlling classes than their predecessors, many of whom lacked advanced degrees or certification in education. In fact, the students with those unqualified, boring teachers scored so much higher on the SATs that the test was "recentered" in 1995, after test scores began to drop.

As teachers became more educated during the latter half of the 20th century, many students lost the self-motivation, responsibility, and ambition necessary for academic success. SAT scores fell steadily between 1963 and 1980, including the proportion of outstanding scores, according to a report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. And the average scores in 1998 were lower than they were in 1974.

American students today bottom-out on international math and science tests, and too many need remedial reading and writing classes in college.

Forty-six percent of all secondary teachers in public schools agree that student misbehavior interferes with teaching, according to a survey from the US Department of Education. Removing disruptive students from classrooms could solve this problem, saving businesses the estimated $20 billion a year they spend to re-teach employees and college students fundamental literacy skills.

All students have a right to education. But, should this be an unqualified right? In our efforts to accommodate a variety of behaviors and abilities, and teach to the individual, we find ourselves without a standard by which to hold us all accountable.

If we hope to raise academic standards in our ailing public- school system, we must find an alternative program for those children whose abusive language and disruptive behavior prevent learning and would surely get them expelled from any civilized institution.

If we continue avoiding the problem instead of fixing it, parents will continue pulling their children out of public institutions and placing them in private schools, where learning takes place, test scores are higher, and, interestingly enough, more teachers like me are employed.

Jeanne Etkins has taught English for many years.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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