I stayed home from work today. Work is my part-time teaching job at one of Montgomery County's larger public high schools. Ostensibly, I am home because my son is scheduled for minor surgery today.
But the real reason I am home is that I could not face another demoralizing day of matching wits with a bunch of insolent and insubordinate 14-year-olds who have never been taught it is not proper to swear at, interrupt or otherwise mock and insult a teacher. I could not bear another day of dispensing detentions, ordering kids to their proper seats (after asking them politely several times), throwing them out of my class because they failed to comply with the ground rules, and otherwise dealing with rude and discourteous human beings.
I was exhausted, burned out and frustrated from the effort necessary to enforce a minimum of classroom order so that the few kids interested in learning might have a fair chance.
Too many people would blame the conduct of the students and their declining sum of knowledge (as measured on "standardized assessments") solely on the educational laxity of the late '60s and '70s. But what is most frightening about today's classroom goes well beyond the established lack of students' demonstrable skills. There seems to be a total disregard for and lack of knowledge about the proper way to treat one another as human beings. There is no such thing as respect. There is a violence and a lack of personal control that characterizes the way students relate to each other and, more noticeably, to those in authority.
Things have changed since I was last in a high school classroom in 1973, my colleagues assure me. For one thing, the obscene language, bantered casually and used in anger, is shocking even to my less-than-innocent ears.
The old alliance between school, church and home has run amok. Now, more often than not, when a teacher calls home to report a discipline problem to parents, he or she finds that the parents have relinquished control as well. Some parents refuse to accept responsibility for their kid's classroom behavior and will try to blame problem behavior on teacher inexperience.
A green teacher is obviously easy prey, but basic civility is not a function of I.Q. Manners are learned through long exposure, reinforcement and some friendly browbeating, rather than somehow acquired, as many presume, through a process akin to osmosis.
Another thing that's changed since 1973 is the length of students' attention spans. It's gotten even shorter, forcing teachers more and more into the reluctant role of dancing pig -- or multimedia entertainer. Everyone is equally familiar and bored with arguments blaming the growing passivity of American students on the breakup of the traditional neighborhood with its emphasis on creative, spontaneous group play and on the unrelenting onslaught of television, video games and electronic toys. But I have decided that your basic "good kid" would survive a contemporary high school only if he or she was programmed early and heavily for athletics, academics and extracurricular involvement -- those "nerdie" activities that about 2 percent of high school kids are interested in today.
I tried unsuccessfully to modify the behavior of my students. Once, my 10th grade history class got sufficiently riled when I showed a film on U.S. Indian policy and made the inference that our land and reservation policy in the 1800s was the subject of litigation today. The class agreed with frightening unanimity that we should bomb the Iranians, send back the boat people and weed out all those who look different and put them on reservations.
These same 10th graders had no knowledge of the atom bomb . . . or that it had ever been used. They didn't know the state capital or the governor's name or who was challenging Jimmy Carter for the presidential nomination. They did know that John Kennedy had been assassinated and that Vietnam was near China, but how the two events fit into recent history drew a blank. On a unit test that was 90 percent objective, only two people attempted the essay question worth 25 percent, although I had given it to them before the test and had outlined the necessary ingredients on the test.
The state of the classroom does not bode well for the future of America. How will these students function at all in society? And how will we fare as a nation composed of millions of similarly apathetic, ill-informed and violent young men and women?