A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fight Club: an update

Mr. Babylon wrote recently about a fight that broke out in a class he was covering.

Although I urge you to go to the post and read it for yourself, because it has much more impact in Mr. Babylon's own words, let me sum up: as far as we know, girl lipped off to boy, boy called girl b-word with an f-bomb thrown in for effect, girl slapped boy hard, teacher verbally intervened but before he could get help, altercation resumed with boy challenging girl to hit him again, girl obliged, and boy decked girl but good. Girl goes to hospital, boy goes to jail.

Mr. Babylon teaches in the Bronx, which makes him a compatriot of my friend NYC Educator. We have discussed the fact that NYC Educator has reported that the powers on high have decreed that no teacher should physically intervene in a fight. I have talked about how I find instructions like this incomprehensible, although I totally support teachers following them, since the legal beagles in their school district would then totally hang a teacher out to dry were they to defy those instructions.


my bone to pick is with the school administration. Why is there no means to get help, short of sticking one's head out the door and yelling? New York City schools spend about $12,000 per student each year, and they can't manage to find a way to communicate to students that violence will not be tolerated for even an instant?

Way back in the 70s, when I was a wee lassie in school, we didn't have phones in the classrooms, but there was a panic button that called the office. At my district we were blessed to have phones installed a few years back, and I am lucky to also have the School Resource Officers' office right down the hall from me. We have cameras everywhere, too.

I remember what it was like without the phones. See, I am not the type to freak out over kids' bizarreness. Kid gives himself a mohawk with a pair of safety scissors? Mine. Kid carves her boyfriend's name into her arm with a straight pin or a burning cigarette? Mine. Kid wears his mom's miniskirts to school every day? Mine. Therefore, as any of you who are teachers know, this means I am punished rewarded with having every, let us say, unique individual, who needs a little tough love being placed in my little corner of heaven. I have had more kids suspected of self-mutilation, anorexia, huffing, and whatnot than you can shake a stick at. I have oft been given the task of not only educating a poor lost waif as to the finer points of our country's history while simultaneously my bloodhound nose has been given the task of sussing out the slightest whiff of maryjane clinging to said waif's clothing. I have had to explain to administrators what a snowman on a shirt means, that the earring with a five-pointed leaf on it is not schwag from the Sierra Club, that there are about six places kids can get piercings below the neck but above the knees, and that kids now classify about five different flavors of virginity, and so on, that I could puke.

Anyhoo, I was once given a particular lost waif who had been placed in state custody after being abused every way a child could be abused by his own parents (damn them to Hell) and who had attacked his last teacher with a pair of scissors. No one knew what the triggers were for this kid, but I was supposed to try to reach him and teach him.

In those days before telephones, I had to pick out a trustworthy kid in class and give him the instruction that if I ever said a certain word, say, "Sassafras," said kid was to run to the office and not come back unless he had an administrator.To preserve privacy, I couldn't say why or who or what would trigger this word. Needless to say, one day the waif went off-- and I swear I don't know why-- but he was having some sort of schizoid episode. "Sassafras" was uttered, and trustworthy kid ran to the office, where he was told that AP NoNeck was busy. Trustworthy kid had to pitch a fit loud enough to bring the Big Cheese himself out of his office, who then realized that my messenger was not kidding, and they finally got there with the cop and the nurse. But in those untold minutes, I had had to interpose myself betwixt my poor waif and the rest of the totally bewildered class, while trying to calm him down.

Administrators at "Shitty High," as Mr. Babylon so aptly names it, apparently can not or will not connect the dots as to why this school and others like it do not function. Step one would be for them to realize that kids who do not feel safe cannot concentrate enough to learn anything. There is no point in coming to school each day to learn in such an environment. Hence, often the only people who come to school are those who understand that their "right" to an education means that they have a place to hang and practice mayhem at will. Years from now they will claim that they were "victims of the system" and were malignly denied the chance to receive an education-- "receive," as in, the student should be filled with knowledge like water fills a passive, empty vessel.

And New York is not the only place where the adults have ceded the fight to the forces of Loki. Apparently, some district officials at this school district are willing to allow gang members to dictate who can be commencement speaker, as my friend the Education Wonk talks about so lucidly here.

For too long we have allowed students with a proven record of violence to inhabit our schools in the name of their "rights." We have sacrificed the needs of the many for the rights of the few. Education policymakers-- and let's face it, that often does NOT include teachers, who are treated as drone bees in the hive, fungible and faceless-- have to be willing to make it "uncomfortable" and "unpleasant" for students to engage in violence in our schools. Of course, if schools were to impose these minimum standards of security, this may mean that these "students" will decide not to grace our hallways with their presence. Rather than have this count against our schools' drop-out rates or daily average attendance, society should realize that, in order to provide the chance for an education to the majority who wish to learn, there may be some students who have not only ceded their own investment in education, but who actively prevent scores of others from maximizing their potential.

In too many schools across the nation, this malaise then spreads to other students who see that the malefactors act with impunity. A kind of "Lord of the Flies" mentality sets in, and soon the entire school is in the grasp of the forces of ignorance and a casual tolerance for sloth, disorder, and apathy, if not more outright violence. The kids see that the leaders of the school do not care enough to set minimum standards of behavior and decency, and so they keep pushing to find out what boundaries, if any, exist.

Kids do this because, really, they WANT boundaries. They want to know that someone cares enough about them to say "No." Kids will keep pushing until those boundaries are set. Having boundaries makes them feel secure. Without boundaries, kids experience the same feeling as an acrophobic does when being asked to parachute from an aircraft.

Each day in school, we ask kids to be willing to take that same terrifying leap of faith out into the unknown. We have to make that leap possible by not setting the plane on fire before asking them to jump. Similarly, the least we can do is let all kids know that their school is a place where they can be safe, and where the leaps will be manageable.

It starts with saying, "No," and backing that up. Sure it is easier to say "Yes." It is easier to acquiesce through silence or apathy in the face of wrongdoing. The kids in schools like "Shitty High" are waiting for the administration to care enough to say something.


At 6/10/06, 8:54 PM, Blogger Mamacita said...

Absolutely excellent. EXCELLENT.

At 6/11/06, 9:12 AM, Blogger NYC Educator said...

You're absolutely right.

I must point out that the per-student spending in NYC is dwarfed by that of surrounding communities. Also, much of it is devoted to ever-expanding layers of administration.

I work in a trailer behind a building designed for 1,800 kids, currently housing 4,200, with hundreds more coming next year, and thus far, every year.

Bloomberg likes to dismantle large schools and start small ones. He sends the same kids to the same buildings, but calls it 5 small schools rather than one big one. He then quintuples the administration and sends the kids to the same places that failed before.

Our entire school security staff was removed and replaced by one with no knowledge whatsoever of the building or the kids. They stand around and watch while fights occur.

I think that those who administrate schools ought to be required to send their kids to the schools they administrate. Then you'll see a change.

At 6/11/06, 10:10 AM, Blogger graycie said...

Bravo! Very well said. Very well, indeed.

My school is at the beginning of this terrible slope and next year we will have a new principal. If our new principal is one of our existing hall principals (who is in the running), I will send him a copy of your piece. I think he would respond well to it.

At 6/11/06, 5:11 PM, Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Hear, hear!

At 6/11/06, 5:16 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Thanks, Mamacita.

NYC I know that 12 K doesn't buy much in NYC-- is that even a month's rent?-- but it still should be able to get SOMETHING to help with security, especially over adding another administrator with permanent job security.

I've heard about the small schools initiative. There are some schools around here that have tried the same thing. I don't see how it can work in a school that is out-of-control.

Your overcrowding is OUTRAGEOUS. I don't care if you call that SIX mini-high schools-- too many bodies leads to chaos. But of course, the PTB use the high price of real estate as an excuse not to come up with a better solution. I really don't know how you do it-- (said in an awe-struck and admiring tone).

I know I am very lucky to work for administration that will not let the school fall into the hands of thugs. This has been actively addressed last year when we saw an uptick of fights and kids hooting and hollering when they broke out.

Graycie, thanks so much! I will hope and ppray that you get an administrator who is not just a yes-man concerned about cosmetic appearances.

At 6/11/06, 7:17 PM, Blogger Ms. George said...

Amen to everything you've said.

When kids become increasingly disruptive, violent, and otherwise disengaged from school, it always seems to turn back to the teachers, "what are YOU doing to address this, have you called home/had them for lunch/written them up?" After upteen write-ups and kicking out of class we actually get remarks like, "you can't keep kicking them out." Oh, so now it's ok to have student 666 disrupt the class continually?
We just have to keep at it and hope that someday, someone will listen and change things before someone gets hurt so these kids can get the help they so desperately need.

At 6/11/06, 9:02 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

And unfortunately it will only get worse as districts keep hiring administrators with 3 seconds' experience in the classroom, or those who are great at sucking up but uninterested in results, although I hope that kind is a dying breed in this NCLB world.

At 6/14/06, 10:41 AM, Blogger 100farmers said...

You just described in detail everything I have either felt or believed about what has been going on in my school for the past three years. Thank you for articulating what I couldn't.

At 6/17/06, 6:44 PM, Anonymous jd2718 said...

I think someone would need to be nuts or blind to become an administrator in that situation. Because here in NYC, administrators do not really have the power to alter this (alright, they can make sure that classroom phones are working).

And in fact, since being a principal in NYC has so often become a lose/lose proposition, those jobs go begging.

Top it off with a top bureaucracy - Mayor Bloomberg and his Chancellor - who really see public schools as a place for the children of the city's service workers to be babysat while their parents open doors and deliver packages, and we have an impossible situation.


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