In today’s Chicago Tribune, there’s an article about a teacher’s blog which is apparently creating such a fuss and out-cry that the teacher has stopped coming to school out of fear for his safety. The school in question is Fenger High School , one of Chicago’s worst public schools. On a blog he called “Fast times at Regnef High”, the teacher wrote about the chaos he saw there:
He labeled his students “criminals,” saying they stole from teachers, dealt drugs in the hallways, had sex in the stairwells, flaunted their pregnant bellies and tossed books out windows. He dismissed their parents as unemployed “project” dwellers who subsist on food stamps, refuse to support their “baby mommas” and bad-mouth teachers because their no-show teens are flunking. He took swipes at his colleagues, too–”union-minimum” teachers, literacy specialists who “decorate their office door with pro-black propaganda,” and security officers whose “loyalty is to the hood, not the school.”
Apparently students, teachers and parents found his language too sharp and were upset that he didn’t preface every negative comment by paying heed to the few kids, teachers and parents who were working hard and behaving properly. However, I find it very telling that this article is written as if the teacher imposed the label criminal on his students and even put the word “criminal” in quotes as if this were simply his assertion. Last time I checked, stealing, dealing drugs, destruction of government property and having sex in public were all illegal behaviors and people who do illegal things are called criminals. It’s hard to get a handle on exactly what is going on here as the blog has been taken down due to the angry, often threatening comments which were being left there. It’s possible that this teacher’s comments were really so over-the-top that the average student or parent reading it would reasonably be insulted. However, when one looks at the school’s performance, it’s pretty clear that this wasn’t a minority of students he was talking about. (Info on test scores here, info on graduation rates here, violent incidents here – go to “related charts” halfway down the page, click and look for Fenger.)
What I think is so interesting about this is that no one seems to be denying the that what the teacher said was true, although they think he was too sweeping in his pronouncements. What people seem to be upset over is that he talked about it and did it in a way which was not couched in niceties or excuses for people’s poor behavior. How is it that the day-in day-out reality of the sorts of behavior this teacher talks about are treated as just a reality of life, not worth getting riled up over, but someone actually talking about it is something to be upset over?
The article ends with the sort of comment which probably goes a long way to explaining how this can be:
“Although many of our students adopt tough facades and insist they are grown, they are still children: sensitive children who still crave guidance, encouraging words and positive reinforcement,” wrote teacher Gina Miski. “Was the author present when students, having read the blog, dejectedly hung their heads with pained, angry tears stinging their eyes?”
You know what – if my children behave abominably and are brought to shame and tears when confronted with their actions, that’s not a bad thing. That’s the time for saying, “OK, you don’t like what’s in the mirror – what are you going to do about it?” What is so damaging is when kids aren’t treated as if they are capable of doing and being better but are instead told that it’s someone else’s fault that they feel bad. Then the kid is left with a sense of shame about themselves which they don’t know what to do with combined with a sense of entitlement to never be judged or held accountable for their behaviors.
When I was in college, I worked with teenaged boys in Illinois state prisons – some of whom no doubt came from this school. They had horrible lives and had been dealt a raw deal from the beginning. Almost to a child, they needed healing from abusive and traumatic experiences in their lives. However, in order to move forward they needed not to be coddled and given “encouraging words and positive re-enforcement” – they needed to start doing things which could be encouraged and displaying behaviors worth re-enforcing. We have done a great disservice to many kids, but especially to inner-city kids who already have such a rough road to walk by emphasizing feeling good about yourself just because you suck air with the rest of humanity instead of building competency and the idea that respect is earned through positive behaviors and accomplishments. When brought up in an education system which says “we respect you even if you take a piss in the corner and beat up your teachers”, it’s no wonder kids and parents get upset when confronted with their own poor behavior.