FAQ: Do teachers suffer abuse at the hands of their students?

A few weeks ago, the friend of a friend posted a YouTube video of an out-of-control student taunting, harassing and threatening a substitute teacher. 

In the comment thread: 
--This is why I could never teach high school. 
--This is what is wrong with students today.
--High school teachers are champions to put up with this #€$& every day.

While I appreciated the supportive remarks for those in my field, I still felt ruffled by the video and the comments it elicited. I felt that it did little to increase understanding, and instead confused and obscured the nuances of student-teacher interactions, and distracted from some of the more relevant issues facing teachers today.

To begin, the extreme violence and abuse portrayed in the video are rare. Yes, it does happen. And yes, students do lose their tempers and abuse their teachers. And in any school, students fight and disrespect teachers and bring weapons to school. But the preponderence of classrooms across America are filled with calm, controlled students who want to learn, or at least grudgingly submit to the process. The video is by no means a portrayal of what occurs in most schools, and not even most schools serving a stereotypically "rough" demographic. It is an outlier and should not be used to represent our daily experience.

Secondly, while I sympathize for that teacher who was clearly in a situation beyond her ability to manage, it is truly an example of a classroom management failure. Most high school teachers are experts in keeping situations in check so that they don't escalate to the situation in the video. We deserve accolades not for withstanding the abuse that can occur in a worst-case scenario, but for our skill at guiding students in a positive direction, and for heading off negativity, disrespect and crises before they have a chance to develop. 

Additionally, a skilled teacher knows that student misbehavior is an opportunity for learning. Our kids are kids, after all. They sometimes don't know how to manage strong emotions like anger, frustration, or disappointment. We are there to help them. We are not victims, we are teachers and leaders. Just as a therapist would not be angry with a client for confessing a secret, how can a teacher be angry with a teenager for being a teenager? Okay, yes, sometimes we do become frustrated by situations and students, but overall, it is our job. It isn't torture, it is part of what makes what we do worthwhile.

I think it is, again, important to be precise in our criticisms and also in our accolades. Teaching is hard, yes, and students act out, yes. But if people think that my daily life is like that classroom in the video, and that I deserve praise for suffering through it, then they are simply incorrect and have a false idea of what I actually do. And then when I have a true problem, this misinformation will make it harder to get the support that I actually need. 


FAQ: Why don't we get rid of all the textbooks?

"Textbook" has become a dirty word in some circles.

To say that a teacher "teaches from the textbook" invokes an image of students in rows, struggling in silence, while a teacher sits at a desk at the front of the class and grades papers, indifferent to his students' misery.

But I think that this is a case of misplaced criticism. You know, like when a person believes that they don't like ginger because they dislike gingerbread, which is veritably disgusting. But what the person actually mean is that they don't like molasses (and who can blame them?), because ginger is delicious.

When people criticize textbooks, I think that they are often criticizing something else.

  • That it is out of date and the school needs to purchase newer materials
  • That it does not align with their school needs
  • That a teacher uses it as a replacement for lesson-planning
  • That the teacher uses it as a law to be followed, not one tool among a variety of other tools
  • That the authors did a sloppy job writing the content
  • That the publishers tried too hard to appeal a broad spectrum of teachers and methodologies, and so do a poor job at pleasing anybody
In one of the levels that I teach, level 2 Spanish, we have rewritten the curriculum to more closely align with the ACTFL standards (a national committee that sets standards for world language instruction) because our textbook did a poor job of meeting those standards. Additionally, while the first level text was okay, the subsequent levels were less and less usable and we felt that our students were becoming stuck and discouraged in the midst of the unnecessary grammar, minutiae, awkward expressions and confusing organization.

However, in lieu of a text, I find myself writing "unit packets" for my students that include vocabulary lists, practice exercises, and guided notes. 

Do you know what is another name for a unit packet? 

A textbook. 

Simply put, a textbook is a tool that I would have a hard time teaching without. It is an organizational guide, a student resource, and a convenient location to store of all of the cool activities, and yes, some of the boring ones. Whether it is written by myself, collaboratively with my colleagues, or by a publisher, a well-written text is an invaluable teacher's tool.

Of course, I use it as one tool among many, I am continually innovating new approaches to teach content, and my students interact with me and with each other (in Spanish!) in countless ways every day. Only rarely will you find my students working silently copying down practice exercises (which does happen sometimes, because sometimes even that is good for them). The textbook plays a healthy role in my classroom.

I think it is important to make sure that we are precise in our criticisms. If we criticize textbooks, then we risk losing an extremely useful tool that makes day-to-day teaching more organized and consistent. Textbooks can be a crutch, yes, and can be misused. But let us be careful to criticize their misuse, so that we are not distracted by the symptom and neglect the problem.


Is Rosetta Stone going to steal my job?

If I gave you a history textbook, could you learn history by yourself?


Will you?

Probably not.

Rosetta Stone is a perfectly fine way for a self-motivated person to get the hang of a language. 

But it will only get you as far as a textbook.

What I do in addition to what Rosetta Stone offers:
-motivate students
-customize material to their level
-modify and explain when a student struggles
-create opportunities to interact with other human beings in the language
-provide real-life context for language (instead of imaginary context in a computer)
-make jokes
-look good

Computers are great and they make all sorts of things easier. But let's not forget that education is more than the mere transference of information from one brain to another, and that our students can only learn about being a human being from another human being.


Laugh or cry?

We have a long-term sub in our building. She is a certified teacher, but she has yet to run her own classroom, so she is sweetly naive about certain realities.

In talking about deciding on a master's degree: "Doesn't the district pay for you to continue to go to school?"

In talking about resources: "Don't they have an online video library where you can get videos for free?"

In talking about professional development: "Don't they pay for you to attend conferences?"

In talking about curriculum: "Isn't there a textbook that already has all of this material so that I don't have to make it myself?"


Teacher Detox

Okay, friends. Let us agree that our job is hard. In addition to being hard, sometimes we are required to meet impossible, irritating, and/or stupid demands.

That said, there are some attitudes that I and you sometimes carry around with us that hurt us more than help us. They make us angrier than we need to be, or more cynical, or more depressed.

Don't get me wrong. I am a realist, and I was born with a healthy dose of skepticism that has kept me snarky to this very day. But I am also realistic enough to realize that some attitudes have no benefit, and yet carry many dangers. Since my goal is to stay in teaching as long as possible, and to enjoy it as much as possible, while doing as much good as possible, I can identify toxic attitudes by performing a brief cost/benefit analysis and asking myself if they support or hurt my end goal.

If your end goal is not, in fact, to stay in teaching as long as possible, to enjoy it as much as possible, and to do as much good as possible, then let us remember that nobody is forcing us to do this work, and we can leave at any time we choose.

So what are some of these toxic attitudes?

1. Teacher vs. Students

Your students are not your enemies. Your job is not to force, coerce, manipulate, or shame them into doing what you want. It is not to "train" them to act in one way or another. It is not to blame them when things go wrong. It is not to destroy their reputations with your colleagues in the lunch room.

Your students are your allies. Your job is to work with them to accomplish cool and interesting and occasionally boring things. Your job is to demonstrate through example the benefits of planning, preparation, and diligence, and to support them when they inevitably do not meet your standards. Your job is to recognize that they are individuals with self-agency and who deserve to be treated with dignity even when they act in ways you dislike. Your job is to remember that even the most mature of them is still a child, and when they fail, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do at their age.

Your students will take up more time, energy and patience than any other single element of your job. If you don't enjoy being with and helping your students, then it might be time to GTFO.

2. Teacher vs. Teachers

Your colleagues are not your enemies. Sometimes your colleagues will be frustrated with a student or a circumstance, and they will take it out on you. They will criticize - rightly and wrongly - something that you have done. You will criticize them, and they will take it the wrong way and become defensive. They will do things in exactly the way that you would rather not. If they have more authority than you, they will mandate that you do things in exactly the way that you would rather not. They will say things that offend without even realizing it, and you will be tempted to carry that hurt around with you for the remainder of your working life.

Don't. Give your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. They are most likely not intentionally trying to make your life more difficult. They are not your competition. Some are smart and others are less so, but not a single one of them is brainless. Assume that they have good intentions, and that they are just struggling to do their work well under the same adverse circumstances as you. Problems arise among colleagues, this is true. But a little bit of forgiveness, understanding, and grace can smooth away many difficulties, and clear the way for us to identify and deal with the true problems like actual grown-ups.

3. Teacher vs. Any New Way of Doing Things

Yes, your job will change every year. The curriculum will change, the standards will change, the students will change, the procedure will change. Yes, it might change back to the way it was ten years ago. Yes, some changes will be unsuccessful, and we will abandon them shortly. That doesn't mean that it was never worth trying. Someone somewhere was trying to do something good, and they misjudged or messed up or things just changed. Let us forgive them. And when some changes seem to be legitimately damaging, let us oppose them on the principles upon which they stand, rather than our resentment over having to do the work.

Instead of rolling your eyes, maybe be grateful that you work in a field that is dynamic rather than static, that stretches you rather than lets you become lazy and stagnant.

4. Teacher vs. Your Actual Job

Did you become a teacher because you expected every day to be rewarding? Did you underestimate the number of hours you would put in, or overestimate how grateful your students would be? Did you become a teacher because you excelled as a student, but you now realize that you are a terrible manager of people? Do you resent the students who require you to work harder than really ought to be necessary?

I think some teachers might be confused about the job that that they think that they have compared to the job that they actually have.

This is your job: Convey mandated information to up to one hundred and seventy students on a daily basis. Corollary responsibilities include managing the classroom environment, creating and organizing curriculum, disciplining disruptive students, motivating unmotivated students, identifying and working with struggling students, soothing worried parents, and praising successes.

If you frequently find yourself angry or resentful about performing any of the above responsibilities, then maybe you need to ask yourself if the job you think you have is different from the job that you actually have, and adjust accordingly.

Of course, sometimes it is not us. 

Sometimes, it is not we as teachers who are carrying toxic attitudes, but our schools themselves that are toxic. Sometimes, we really are put in competition against our colleagues. Sometimes our students really are intentionally sabotaging what we are doing. Sometimes we really are required to work far more than any one person should be asked to work. If that is the case, we all have a choice: accept it, see if we can change it, or leave.

Nobody is forcing you to do anything. You always have a choice. Whatever choice you make, accept what it is and be happy with it.


The Classroom as a Stage

I am a HUGE Stephen Colbert fan. I loved the sharp satire on The Colbert Report, and laughed with him at his hyper-conservative, self-obsessed alter ego. 

It has been intriguing to see his stage persona develop on The Late Show the last few weeks. No longer bound to the political spectrum, he seems more relaxed, goofier. Of course some other aspects remain: his flair for the grandiose and his quick intelligence. 

But even his Late Show stage persona is a creation. A more natural one, certainly. But I doubt that he regularly hosts national figures at his home for idle chat about their latest movies, or that he performs a monologue for his wife at breakfast. 

One transition that I struggled with as a new teacher was to accept that as the teacher, I am not really myself. I am a version of myself, yes. I am not a hyperbolic character on Comedy Central. But I do become the host of a variety show (albeit a less entertaining one than Colbert's) every time I step into my classroom. 

Like a show host, I exaggerate some aspects of my personality, and downplay others. I exaggerate my niceness, and downplay my skepticism. I act more outgoing than I really am. I dress more conservatively. 

I do things that I might not normally do in another environment. Things like:
--tell other people what to do
--interrupt people or refuse them a turn to speak
--demand that others pay attention to me
--make people put their phones away
--intentionally make a scene in order to make a point about appropriate/inapproptiate behavior 
--be excited about school events

And I avoid doing other things that I would readily do otherwise, like:
--talk about my personal beliefs
--have extended one-on-one conversations 
--wear leggings

In a way, I am creating soundbytes for my students to share. In managing my image I am managing my message. Do I want them to tell their parents X? Or do I want them to tweet Y? If this were to be snapchatted, would I like what I saw? I constantly repeat the things I want noticed, and I avoid drawing attention to things I want unreported, even if I myself have a different view of the situation. 

I think this is challenging, and maybe particularly so for me, since I am a naturally quiet and non-demanding person. A more outgoing, society-conscious person likely already has many of these skills, whereas I am still developing them through careful observation and sometimes painful trial and error. I suppose this is why some people seem more "natural" at teaching than others. 

But I think it is encouraging that the showmanship of teaching can be learned, no matter who you are and what you are naturally like. And though you may have to exaggerate some parts of yourself and downplay others, you can find a way to present yourself that is comfortable for you; there is no "right personality" for a teacher. 

Best of all, unlike Stephen Colbert, we don't lose our jobs if we aren't as funny as the other guy. Thank goodness, because my John Kerry jokes are waaay underappreciated by my audience.

Un poema sobre la soledad

Un poema sobre la soledad: