This is True often deals with education. That’s due to several factors, including: 1) We all spend so many of our formative years in school, 2) Kids have a knack for doing really dumb things sometimes, and 3) School administrators and teachers always want to outdo the kids, and thus pull even dumber stunts. There’s more, of course, and it’s far from all Zero Tolerance stuff.
As I collect stories to write about in True, I often notice certain patterns. There might be a sudden surge in “Bank robber drops his wallet during the crime, and leaves it behind” stories, and it’s a lot of fun to run several variations together. In January 2005, I noticed I had a big pile of Stupid Public School stories coming up. To get a head start on the angry letters, I …well… I… I… OK, I admit it! I baited my readers!
I figured that of the hundreds of teachers out there, some percentage had to be self-important “blame it on everyone but me” idiots who would write to complain about what I said.
But the interesting thing was, only one fell for it! Before we get there, though, I want to run my editorial, which was in the 23 January 2005 issue. I used a reader letter to give me just the springboard I needed:
Today’s mail brings this from Brian from Colorado:
Just thought I’d let you know I am reading True while working at Baghdad International Airport [since] I have access to my email account from here. I am a Reservist called to Active Duty from Colorado Springs, CO. I moved to Austin, Texas on 1 December and got activated on 27 December.” (Nothing like a chance to settle in, eh?! -rc) “Anyway, the real reason I am writing is This is True and your ‘extra’ commentary really exacerbates the conflict I have between my philosophies on the nature of people: whether people are idiots or not. I see so much stupidity being perpetrated and perpetuated by people, I think to myself ‘people are idiots.’ Then, I go read your writings and the postings of intelligent readers who have responded to your expanded discussions and think to myself ‘there are a lot of people out there who are not idiots.’ And so the battle rages on; one day people are idiots, the next day they are not. I guess reading True and HeroicStories helps me keep the balance between sides, but now I am ever in a state of conflict. Do you have any suggestions on how to end this perpetual, personal, philosophical conflict? Very Respectfully, Brian, SMSgt, U.S. Air Force, Iraq
Yes. Remember that variety and differences is what makes life interesting. If we were all the same, imagine how boring life would be. This is what makes some “professional” educators …well… idiots: they seek to treat all students the same, no matter what. By forcing all kids into one mold, their strengths are ignored. They think the kids “need” self-esteem, so they prop them up with bogus reassurances that cause more problems later, when they find out that not everyone has the same abilities — that others really do better than they do at some things. Once they realize their self-esteem is based on lies, it comes crashing down to much lower levels that it ever was before. They think all the praise they got was a lie, including their actual strengths, which were ignored or downplayed because teachers didn’t want another kid without that particular ability to “feel bad.” It’s a rare kid that doesn’t have one or more true strengths that he could feel good about, but that’s no longer allowed: wait’ll you see the story in next week’s issue about why one school canceled their spelling bee….
So we should embrace differences, not smother them. It’s what makes life worth living. So yes: some people are idiots some of the time, others all of the time. I’ve done stupid things in my life, and no doubt you have too. Luckily, we have the ability to learn from the mistakes of others so you don’t have to make them all yourself. To wrap back to the beginning, if the stories in True make you think and make you a better and more interesting person, fantastic! Anything else would simply be idiotic.
(Several of the more interesting “extended discussions” Brian referred to are listed here.)
So that was the setup. Sure enough, when I was ready to run the string of education stories, I had letters to go with them. But first, the stories — from the 30 January 2005 issue:
Two students at Wyomina Park Elementary School in Ocala, Fla., were caught doodling in class. The 9- and 10-year-old boys had drawn stick figures purportedly showing a classmate being hanged, with other stick figures “holding knives pointed through” his body. The teacher called in the school’s dean, who called in the police, who called in the State Attorney’s Office for consultation. The boys were arrested, handcuffed and charged with “making a written threat to kill or harm another person,” a felony. The mother of the 9- year-old says her son was upset at the boy supposedly in the drawing since that boy had been pushing and shoving him at school. She said her son, a special education student, would not be able to associate the drawing with actual physical violence. (Ocala Star-Banner) …With him in jail, then, the bullying is complete.
Institutional Bully II
School officials in Chicago, Ill., say a teacher at Morgan Park School taped shut the mouths and eyes of several second-grade students who were disrupting her class. She gave students a warning first, though: “Sit your ass down!” No charges have been filed, but the school district has started procedures to fire the unnamed teacher. (Chicago Sun-Times) …Portrait of American Justice: Assault children, no charges. Draw a picture of a bully: felony charges.
Expanding Kids’ Minds
The Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto, Calif., hosted a “career day” to help students plan for their futures. One of the speakers invited to the assembly was William Fried, a salesman who, in his presentation called “The Secret of a Happy Life”, pointed out there’s a special career available to girls, especially those with large breasts: stripping. “For every two inches up there, it’s another $50,000,” he told the very attentive kids. Asked to comment later, Fried stood behind his comments. “Maybe I could have probably spent less time on exotic dancing,” he said, “but I think the kids were entertained.” Principal Joseph Di Salvo admitted encouraging eighth-grade girls to pursue stripping was “inappropriate,” but insisted the controversy was “overblown.” (San Francisco Chronicle) …And you know, the overblown girls can get more like $100,000 extra.
How That Idea Spreads
Police in La Marque, Texas, were called by parents to investigate the Mainland Preparatory Academy, a private “charter” elementary school known for its innovative “out of the box” educational style. After a $10 bill was discovered missing, school officials forced 10 students to submit to a strip search. Uncertain what to do, police asked the district attorney whether any charges should be filed. County DA Kurt Sistrunk announced that the school officials’ conduct did not “rise to the level to support any criminal charges.” The money, of course, was never found. (Galveston Daily News) …Right. A teacher had stuffed it into one of the kids’ g-strings.
“With videos and various cable TV shows, there’s an awful lot that kids are exposed to,” says school psychologist John Crahen. “Kids will imitate what they see and hear.” Crahen was reacting to a report that two first-graders — six years old — had been caught under a stairwell at school attempting to engage in sex. The boy and girl were each suspended for five days, pending an expulsion hearing to keep them out for the rest of the school year. The kids are students at Indianapolis, Ind., School 69. (Indianapolis Star) …I think I know what the problem is.
Bee Been Banned
Schools in Lincoln, R.I., have canceled the annual spelling bee competition. Assistant Superintendent of Schools Linda Newman said the decision was unanimous, and was because the “No Child Left Behind says all kids must reach high standards,” but a spelling bee is “about one kid winning, several making it to the top and leaving all others behind. That’s contrary to No Child Left Behind.” A spelling bee “sends a message that this isn’t an all-kids movement” as it leaves “some kids being winners, some kids being losers.” That just won’t do, she says, since “You have to build positive self-esteem for all kids, so they believe they’re all winners.” (Woonsocket Call) …Asinine. A-S-I-N-I-N-E. Asinine.
Story Update: After I wrote that last story, the newspaper published a follow-up to say the school district’s new Superintendent has reversed the decision, but he’s still a bit wishy-washy about it: “My job is to make sure schools aren’t dull and dreary places,” Superintendent John Tindall-Gibson says. “These sorts of competitions can be motivational and exciting for students, so that’s something we will have to consider.” You bet, Superintendent: you should “consider” doing what you define as your job!
As I mentioned, the letters started coming in before the above stories even ran. But interestingly, they weren’t what I expected:
I appreciated your comment about the differences between humans to be important. I am so sorry your experience with educators is so negative in this area. I have been a teacher for 39 years, mostly in the field of art and music, but I’ve also taught classrooms. I was taught to pay attention to individual differences and work with them, not to homogenize my students, but to help them realize their unique potential. I have been teaching in international schools in Venezuela, Kuwait, and now Malaysia since 1978. As we teach children for over 40 nations, it is impossible, indeed immoral, to ignore the variety among our students. Instead we celebrate it. And every teacher I know does this. Hopefully there are more out there like us. –Judith, Malaysia
As I’ve often said, there are a lot of great teachers out there, even though the idiots I write about in True makes the whole profession look bad. It’s terrific to know I’ve got some great ones among my readers.
I teach grade 7 english and phys ed, and my classes are filled with kids of differing abilities. Something which has been sweeping both Canada and the United States of late is placing kids in class according to their age, not ability. I have kids who come from Africa, never had a real home because they grew up in a refugee camp, never went to school, never had parents, and we stick them in junior high because they’re 12. As well, in elementary and junior high, kids are passed from grade to the next even if they failed for whatever reason, either because they had learning difficulties or just screwed around all year. This was an initiative started by parents and teachers together. The result is that teachers get kids who never passed the previous one, because their parents don’t want them to feel bad for being a year older than anyone else. Parents need to accept that their kid is not the same as the neighbor’s. –Monique Alberta, Canada
“Randy, in my 30+ years in education as a one room school teacher, ‘regular’ teacher in elementary & secondary schools, principal, special education teacher, and instructor in tech schools & community colleges; I have never heard a better summation of what is wrong with western education today than [yours]. I was informed by an applicant (for a grade 1-3 teaching position) that there is ‘not room excellence in modern education’ because of the harm it does to students’ self-esteem. Every student I have ever had has been at least ‘very good’ at something. My goal as a teacher is to help my students to recognize their strengths & weaknesses then lend their strengths to others in return for help with their weaknesses. If possible, I like to include group work and to encourage study groups to help them reach that goal. My biggest problem is repairing the harm these ‘professional … idiots’ have done to my ‘kids’ by giving generic praise, often for something that the student knows they aren’t good at, because they are too lazy find the student’s real areas of excellence. Of course if they look for strengths they might find weaknesses and have to do something like teach. –Ron, B.C., Canada
Notice anything with those? All of those teachers are outside the U.S. I only got one from inside:
Finally, it happened. You offended me. In your latest dispatch someone with very little insight wrote a piece about teachers trying to shove their students into the same mold. This professional educator, along with many, feel our hands tied by ADMINISTRATORS who, like the spineless cretins they are, worry about such things as if we hurt the feelings of a child when we tell them the answer they gave is wrong. They are the ones with parents breathing down their backs. The administrators also know that Johnny can’t read. That’s because Mom and dad will buy a 65 inch HDTV plasma television before they buy a book to put into their kids hands. Don’t forgot that in mommy and daddy’s eyes Johnny can’t do any wrong. When he doesn’t study because there are no rules at home and Johnny is up later than the teacher. It is always the teacher’s fault why Johnny can’t read. I don’t teach in an affluent part of town, nor do I teach in the heart of a crime infested city. I have several 13 year olds in my classes who have rap sheets longer than my tie. They are found wandering the streets at three or four in the morning when there is school the next day. Mom and dad didn’t even know they were out. Of course when the blame is unrefutably the parents, they just throw up their hands and say, ‘I just don’t know what to do any more.’ But somewhere along the lines an administrator is telling us from their ivory tower, how to fix the world and make everything all better for the kid. What does the administrator do? Worry about the self esteem of the child. Teachers seem to be the scapegoat in your little blurb. Walk a mile in my shoes and you’ll run screaming the other way. Is it the teacher who pushes the child with a single digit average on? NO! We know better. We know skills and lessons were not learned. But heaven forbid the school district should look bad. Currently in New York State the Commissioner of Education (the head administrator) is thinking of tying student performance to State aid. So if the kids do poorly they suffer with less tools like books, papers, and pencils (do you really think everyone brings them to school)? Teaching positions are cut because the aid is no long flowing in and the classes get crowded and little Johnny is lucky to get the attention of one teacher for four minutes a week. Don’t get me wrong, not all administrators are like this. So I’m not sure who wrote that piece but obviously someone who is ill informed. If you would pass it on to them, I would appreciate it. –James, New York
(Why yes, I did greatly condense that letter; I did all of them, but otherwise did not edit them in any way, or fix misspellings or grammar errors — the people who teach our kids should be top-notch in that department.)
Beyond the fact that it astounds me that there are readers who don’t know who writes this section (less, of course, anything in quotation marks and attributed to others), I do find it interesting that so many readers choose to think I’m speaking about them when I write about what’s wrong, but don’t think I’m talking about them when I discuss what’s right. They choose to take offense, to assume they’re considered part of the problem. And here I thought it was human nature for the “guilty” ones to say, “They must be talking about someone else, since I know I’m perfect.” Oh well!
To help belabor the obvious, Yes: kids do “need” self-esteem. But it must be real, and they must not be “protected” from the fact that they are not perfect, and that others have skills that they do not have. To pretend that we are not all different, with different strengths and weaknesses is not only a denial of our humanity, it’s …yes… idiotic.
More Reader Mail on the Issue
Regarding your tagline, “Assault children, no charges. Draw a picture of a bully: felony charges.” Simple answer: The teachers have a union. The kids don’t. –Greg, Washington.
It appears that James from NY is your typical union teacher. It’s always managements fault. Whine, whine, whine. I wonder if it ever accured to him that he is complaining about management doing to him what he is doing to the kids? –Dave, Georgia
I wanted to further agree that your diatribe on education was right on the mark. The gentleman from New York who defended teachers was, to some extent, also right, but someone has to start taking responsibility. Sure, the parents are to blame for demanding that the schools give good grades to their kids and never hurt their feelings. Sure, administrators are to blame for pushing numbers and grades above growth and improvement, as well as for bending to the will of the parents. That does not mean, however, that teachers are not to blame. Having been, until recently, an education major, I know quite a few teachers and teachers of teachers. From the teachers of teachers, I hear that the administration has the wrong idea. From the teachers, I hear nothing. At the same time, the teachers of teachers are still pushing self-esteem above everything else, even though they know that formless, pointless self-esteem is destructive to the children. In two years of education courses, I never once saw one of my professors skip out on a class to lobby for an education reform bill. In contrast, I had a psychology professor who missed no less than three classes in a single semester in order to help lobby for several bills she supported. Our problem is that the teachers are deciding their hands are tied and choosing to do nothing about it. They are defeatist and apathetic. As conscientious objectors have proven over and over in the world’s recent history, anyone can make an impactful change, if they will just stand up and do it. The teachers are bowing to policies that they know are wrong. Blame can be thrown in all directions…nothing will change that. Your article was, I believe, an attempt to shed light, not blame, on a complex and horribly twisted situation, and you did an excellent job of it. Please keep up the good work.
In response to the letter from James in New York, I can only say that I feel very sorry for his students. I feel sorry for the New York education system in the long run because James will probably be promoted to a Counselor or an Administrator. But then let’s look on the bright side of things, you will have more fodder for the “This is True” cannon. –Bob, Oregon
I am a teacher inside the United States (and a mother of three teens) who wants to send KUDOS your way for recognizing that all students were NOT created equal and the mucky-mucks who invented our public education system seem to be the only ones who do not know so. I fault our higher education system for turning out cloned teachers who think they have to follow their administrators in ruining the lives of their students instead of using the gift of teaching to inspire their students to greater things. Kudos to you for your visionary remarks! –Lauren, New York
I think you’ll find that most professional educators in the US didn’t respond to your letter because we agreed 100%. Teachers don’t really have time to write “me too” emails but they will take the time to write nasty replies, they see so many good examples 🙂 . So, on the behalf of professional educators in the US, I say, you got it right, A+, extra credit and a gold star. –Joshua, Iowa
Over 30 years ago I went to college to be trained as a middle school teacher. I personally had been inspired by an excellent 7/8th grade science teacher and wanted to do the same. During the summer I worked at a Radio Shack, it was fun work and I enjoyed it. The store owner told me many times that I was nuts to want to be a public school teacher and that I would have a much easier job and could make more money managing one of his stores. When I got out of school, I learned he was right. It was hard work for little pay and no appreciation. I went back to college and got a Master’s degree in Computer Science. I just couldn’t see the point of taking a vow of poverty and spending long hours preparing lessons and grading school work, when it obviously didn’t matter a whit to the parents and community I was serving. It was no secret when I went to college that very few of the best and the brightest were going into public school teaching. I have no doubt that this is still very true today. To paraphrase J. B. Priestley; Like its politicians and its wars, society has the schools it deserves. –Bill, New Hampshire
Zero tolerance and self-esteem programs as well as attempted intrusions into our children’s education at ever-younger ages to teach alternate lifestyles or sexual practices has taught me that as a parent, I have an even tougher job than parents of times past to ensure that my kids aren’t taught improper rules of conduct that are enforced by an indifferent educational system. Where are those teachers that encourage better behavior? That try to bring out the best in each of us? I’ll tell you where they’re at: at the mercy of administrators who wield pressure in “suggesting excellence” in class through rigid conformity, devoid of true excellence. They’re at the mercy of parents who are unwilling to perform their parental duty at home in any number of ways, and then scream at teachers (and other students opposing their students!) when their own children are neck deep in the middle of trouble. I live in an area of great affluence, and it’s a shame to see the sense of entitlement that comes from the children of parents who have worked so hard to get where they’re at, but who have forgotten the work necessary within their own homes. Teachers are giving up in going the extra mile because they see such incompetence all around them, or their students simply resist excelling. –Justin, California
I teach high school mathematics. This year the lowest grade I can put on a report card is 60. A student who never turns in an assignment, never takes a test, and does nothing in class earns a 60 on the report card. This means that it is mathematically possible for the student to pass should he/she come to their senses during the 3rd six weeks of the semester and decide to work — at least that is the theory. This effectively changes my grade scale from 0-100 to 60-100. If the do nothing student get 60, what do I give the student who does 50 work? A 50 is not possible due to administrative rules. A 60 does not seem fair but neither is a 70 (passing). I am called on the carpet for high failure rates in my classroom. I am called on the carpet for high failure rates on the state mandated tests. If I must pass students when they do not know the subject matter, how can they be expected to pass the state test? –Vickie, Texas
I know the teachers are doing the best they can with the tools they have, but isn’t that in itself a sad statement about our schools? And it’s always someone else’s fault. Give me a break: if we each did what we could to make our own little piece a better place, then the country as a whole would get better. Teachers are supposed to teach by example, not by “do as I say.” And the administrators of tomorrow are being taught by today’s teachers, so what will tomorrow bring? Keep up the good work and making people like me angry about the little stupidities in life, because that is the only way to get them noticed and changed. –Sam, Michigan
In the 8th grade, I tried out for the football team. Players who demonstrated that they had skills that the coaches thought would help the team win games were allowed to play more. About 15 to 20 of us (out of about 45 in total) contributed about 95% of the effort toward a winning season. We had a seriously steep learning curve, but eventually we prevailed, even defeating the team which had beat us 24-0 in our first outing by a score of 22-6 in an end of season re-match. The coaches decided that no one would be rewarded for their efforts because 1) if we ‘lettered’ as 8th graders, we’d lose any incentive to play our best during our freshman year in high school, and 2) it would not be fair to reward some and not others. Sound familiar? We were greatly encouraged when we found out that the coaches had relented. Encouraged, that is, until we discovered that all 45 of us would receive a letter. Maybe it was asinine for 8th graders to think that those who contributed the most would be the ones rewarded. I do know that the feeling that was expressed among the 15 or so who had carried the bulk of the load for the entire season was “What’s the use? What’s the point? We busted our butts for the entire year and we all get exactly the same letter.” How can it be fair to reward everyone regardless of their contribution to the effort. So, if this ‘no child left behind’ mentality continues to prevail, are we going to eliminate ALL competitive sports and events in our schools? Or should we just give team B the same number of points that team A just busted their hump to score the hard way? Thereby having all games and events end in a tie. My feminist friends and I differ on this count. They say that competition is the bane of human existence and that we should strive to be more cooperative and less competitive. I believe that cooperation and competition are twin values that should complement each other and have contributed in our development. –Lee, location not given.
I noticed that not one person that commented to your editorial had anything to say in regards to making things better; there was a lot of blame towards others…always others. The last guy makes himself out to be such a hero yet at the same time makes the children sound like worthless garbage; maybe he is in the wrong line of work. He’s right I could never be a teacher; but then again I am also not foolish enough to pretend I can! –Brynda, Oregon