David Michael Slater is a veteran middle and high school teacher who now lives and teaches in Reno, Nevada. He is also the author of more than 20 books for children, teens, and adults. His new book is “We’re Doing It Wrong: 25 Ideas in Education That Just Don’t Work — And How to Fix Them.”
Each chapter identifies a problem Slater sees in America’s schools, and then he provides a solution. Topics include class size, the effect of poverty on student performance, anti-bullying programs, and standardized testing. You may agree with him or you may not, but the subjects and his discussions are interesting.
He and a colleague, Reno educator Joseph Pazar (who survived a school shooting a few years ago), are authoring a blog/podcast site meant to amplify the voice of educators, which you can find here.
Here’s a chapter from his book, “The Customer Is Always Right.” Actually, if students are viewed as customers, then the customer isn’t always right, Slater says. Read on.
Lately, it has become common practice for schools to survey their students about “school climate.” This is wise, as staff and students can have very different perceptions of the environment in which they teach and learn. But I find such surveys can be emblematic of a troublesome shift at the heart of what makes education a less and less appealing profession to so many teachers. Specifically, surveys like one from New Jersey ask students many questions about the influence and attitudes of teachers and peers, but none which imply that the survey subject themselves have a role in creating their school’s climate. There are no questions, for example, about whether they feel education is important, or that they are responsible for their own learning, or for respecting peers and teachers, etc. Teachers and administrators should, of course, do everything in their power to promote the success of their students, but they alone do not create a school’s climate.
This is just one example, but it’s indicative of a cultural shift, perhaps best exemplified by colleges that now literally view their students as clients they must compete to please. In such an atmosphere, the character and comportment of students are considered irrelevant in the assessment of their teachers. Often hiring, firing, and tenure decisions at universities rely heavily on student ratings, despite the fact that, according to a study published by the Department of Statistics at Berkeley, “there is strong evidence that student responses to questions of ‘effectiveness’ do not measure teaching effectiveness.”
It is acknowledged that discussions of student disengagement and misbehavior are minefields riddled with stereotyping, bias, and even racism. Even so, it cannot be denied that the result of our student-as-client orientation is a culture in which educators are routinely blamed for causes of student failure that are mostly (and sometimes entirely) beyond their control. This is a culture that raises the individual to the level of a tyrant by insisting that disruptive students have more right to remain in a class they destroy than the rest of the students have to study in a learning environment free of distractions. A Special Ed paraeducator (which is an uncertified but supervised school employee) shared with me that he nearly lost his job for putting a hand on an out-of-control student wreaking havoc in his class. That’s also just one example, of course, but consider that teachers in Allentown, Pennsylvania, recently declared that “disruptive students run the schools.”
This is also a culture in which parents assume the teacher is lying about an incident at school, not their ten-year-old. And one in which, all too often, administrators do not support their teachers in the face of attacks by students and parents.
I hope that you don’t misunderstand me here. There are some teachers who cannot handle classroom management, who are bullies, and who lack the sensitivity of an anvil. I am a proponent of thoughtful interventions implemented for students who struggle with academics and behavior. I have been part of amazing, heartwarming transformations. But it seems to me that most decisions in K–12 education are made, first and foremost, with fear of lawsuits in mind. And while obviously the law is there to protect vulnerable students, the overly litigious atmosphere actually backfires, as teachers often avoid confronting difficult situations for fear of being sued. Most will no longer allow themselves to be alone with a student, especially one of the opposite sex, for fear of career-ending accusations of sexual assault. Principal Marguerite McNeely noted the following in a survey reported by Education World: “Teachers and other staff members often restrain from hugs, compassion the students are in so much need of, due to the fact someone might charge them with harassment.” And this should be no surprise given that, as Principal Jim Jordan noted in the same report, “many parents are looking for something to sue about. They are looking for just one small slip-up . . . If they think they can get enough to get an out-of-court settlement, they file the suit.”
We might consider a law requiring parents to pay legal costs if their suits are found to be frivolous. But regardless, we must recognize that when teachers feel powerless to maintain an environment conducive to doing their jobs, they won’t want the job.