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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Teaching Respect & Responsibility

Reflections as the school year ends.

High school English teacher and China traveler, Pat Kurz is reflecting on the year winding to a close as well as how parents, schools and communities can raise citizens. ~Stephanie

Every June, on the seniors’ last Wednesday here at Gig Harbor High, but with a week left for the rest, we hold an assembly in which the seniors symbolically exit the gym while the juniors race across the gym to sit in the senior sections, the sophomores to the junior section and the freshmen to theirs, leaving the freshman section momentarily empty. The seniors rush in, screaming and yelling, to take their place as freshmen in college. That night, the juniors stay up all night to celebrate their advancement to senior-hood, terrorize the town and as the new school day begins, they will welcome all the cars into the parking lot with screams and cheers. They will sport their new t-shirts proclaiming themselves seniors. During class that day, they will want to cuddle up in the blanket they have toted with them, also a part of the tradition, and be allowed to sleep. It made me happy to not be teaching juniors this year.

My TIDES class this morning, a group of freshmen who meet from 7:30 to 8:00 for study time, were interrupted by the noise and wanted to know what it was all about. After my explanation, one of my students said, “Teachers should just let them sleep.” “You mean,” I responded, “give them a test and let them sleep through it?” “No,” said another, “just let them sleep.” Several of them nodded in agreement. I explained that we only get 180 days of school and there is never enough time to cover everything. They were unconvinced, of course.

Another effect of the “moving up assembly” is that a certain percentage of the remaining underclassmen will now consider themselves to be members of the class they will not truly inhabit until next year, provided they pass their classes. (Or not. We have students masquerading as members of a class when they do not have the credits for standing in the class; they have merely gotten older, but that’s another issue.) Since they now consider themselves seniors, many juniors will figure that they no longer need to worry about junior English or other junior classes; they’re seniors now. The same effect will filter through the other classes as well. I find it a little obnoxious.

There’s an entitlement attitude that, I think, stems from the permissiveness we’ve been talking about. A student interrupted my lesson yesterday to ask to go to the office to make a phone call. She had asked for this several times before and should know by now that the policy allows students to use the phone during lunch or passing time. Obviously there are exceptions for true emergencies. I said, “No.” She immediately began the “buts.” It took five iterations of “No” before she sat down in a huff with a fantastically executed eye roll. In the process, she distracted every other student.

Another student interrupted TIDES this morning, with no pass from me or the other teacher, in order to turn in a project due two days ago because she forgot to turn it in. It’s also incomplete. Her percentage in the class is 67, a D+. Her rationale for me to accept it late is that she did not finish it until right before the period ended and she was worried about missing her bus. The truth is probably that she was not finished on time. The underlying problem is that schoolwork is simply not important to her.

The two students share a common problem, also noted in previous posts and comments here In Our Neighborhood. For each of them, the chief, perhaps the only, thing of importance in her life is herself. No one else matters. Her needs are paramount and must be addressed immediately.

I long for a day at school in which I am not interrupted. There is always a student who will not wait, but shouts out a question or comment. If they bother to raise their hand, they become quite pouty if I don’t call on them immediately; the effect is a shout-out delayed by a short period of frantic hand waving. They will interrupt instructions for an assignment to ask about the instructions for the assignment. They will come from a different class to interrupt my class to find out something they’ll be told in the next period when they will be in my class. If I tell them to go away and not interrupt my class, another student invariably says, sometimes loudly, “Miss Kurz, that was rude.” They mean my behavior, of course, in case you thought they really had a handle on true rudeness.

In May of ‘06, the TNT published an editorial by David Brooks concerning an experiment done in the 70s measuring self-control or delayed gratification. It is online at:

The results showed that children who can delay gratification do better in school, indeed in life.

“The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years later and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32”

This inability to wait for things expresses itself in many ways every day in schools. “What are we doing today?” my students ask. “English.” I answer. “No, but what are we doing today?” they ask again, even though in about a minute, they will know along with the rest of the class without the need to ask. If I announce a quiz, someone always asks, “How many questions are there?” If I do not answer, severe stress ensues. Whatever desire or question flashes through their heads becomes an immediate necessity. Never mind what else might be happening around them. Asking them to wait usually engenders an argument, which of course takes more time than just answering the question. That is probably why we adults have fallen into the trap of enabling this behavior. After all, we’ve already been interrupted; the damage has pretty much been done. What’s to be gained by prolonging the agony to teach a minor lesson which may or may not take root.

If we don’t start somewhere, nothing will ever change. I sent Brooks’ article to many of my peers when it came out in May of ’06. I have shared it with my students, some of whom interrupted me in the middle of reading it to take umbrage at the idea that if they resembled the people in the article that they were doomed to be drug abusing ne’er-do-wells.


JosephMcG said...

Patty: what steps can we take to help our children focus on goals that, short and long term, will help them to lead healthy, happy lives...

Pat Kurz said...

If we make them actually work for rewards or grades, that may help. In the 70s, colleges cracked down on fraternity hazing, forced frats to water down harsh rituals. One effect was that loyalty to the houses and retention of members both declined. Psychologists opined that if humans have to work to achieve something, they value it more. We shouldn't just give kids things that have any value if we want those things to retain their value or if we want them to learn how to work.

Stephanie Frieze said...

I'd be happy if parents started by making children pick up after themselves. That should be the earliest training of responsibility. Then parents should also demand respect for themselves and the other adults in a child's life. It would make the job or teachers much easier.

Kim Thompson said...

Another early lesson, too, Stephanie, is manners. My kids learned "thank you" and "please" very, very quickly and early.

Stephanie Frieze said...

Oh, don't even get me started on that! I wrote about manners last fall and I could go off on that for hours. Actually, the lack of manners in our country is the problem with respect and at the root of many of America's problems. Manners were created to make our lives nicer. Their abandonment has not improved our lives. I know some schools are adding manners to their school day.

JosephMcG said...

Do we teach by what we demand, say, or do...

Stephanie Frieze said...

Succinct and so true, Joseph. Our lives teach people what we believe and how to treat us.