Monday, August 3, 2015

Love can build a bridge that's structurally unsound

Last week I talked about why it’s such a bad idea for teachers to curry student favor. Trying to be students’ friends and “get down on their level” seems like a good idea, but Communism, skinny jeans and Katy Perry seemed like good ideas too.  Mr. Greg is a prime example of what happens when teachers don’t set boundaries and getting too huggy or familiar with kids.  Winnie can tell you what happens to teachers who hate to disappoint their students and try to be the good guy.

Winnie, a TCS coworker of mine, wanted students to like her.  She was a first-year communications elective teacher who felt that the students needed to feel comfortable in class and with her.  The way she got them to do that was by showing lots of videos, spending a big chunk of class time “chatting” and letting discipline fall by the wayside. She was always afraid of “upsetting” students, so the only discipline strategy she ever used was a half-hearted, “That wouldn’t be acceptable in another class!” or “You really shouldn’t do that.” 

The classroom wasn’t just out of control; it smelled.  Because she never introduced or enforced any structure or procedures, the room often looked like a war zone.  Wads of paper and broken pens constantly littered the floor; desks were often gritty with chip crumbs, Starbucks coffee cups rolled under desks and occasionally a Jack-in-the-Box bag could be seen stuffed into the bookcase.

When people like me commented on the mess, she claimed she “never really noticed” while trying to pick up stray Cheetos.  If you mentioned the smell, she always said she had a cold, as though that explained it.  Most of the other teachers just started avoiding her room; not just because of the mess and smell, but because you could feel the students getting dumber when you saw them in the room.

Even though some students complained about the mess, those same students were quick to tell me that hers was their favorite class, because “we can do whatever we want in there.” High schoolers know their priorities and very low on that list of priorities is completing work. Near the top of that list is being allowed to leave class whenever your boyfriend texts you from the hallway for a quick, uh, study session.

The administration wearied of the complaints from other teachers about the noise, the smell, and the students always seemed to end up roaming the halls.  After a few visits from our assistant principal, Winnie was told to keep the students quiet and in the classroom, or else.  So she tried, sort of.  But her attempts were met with mutiny.  Winnie had never required her students to abide by the most basic school rules, let alone throw away their trash, so they sure as heck weren’t changing now.  
Shortly after Winnie had adopted her new Viola Swamp persona, Nick, a senior, had enough and decided to walk out of her class.  To everyone’s shock (including mine when I heard about it later) Winnie actually told him to sit down. He left anyway. And why not? Nick walked out of her class most days, and she’d always let him go before.  Winnie, under pressure from administration to keep her students out of the halls, and desperate to keep her job, did something she had never done before: She followed procedure and called the office to report that a student had walked out of her class without permission.

The following is Winnie’s account of what happened later that day when she met with Nick and the Dean of Students in the Dean’s office.

Ms. Cohen, the dean of students, addressed Nick. “Why did you leave Ms. Henderson’s room without permission?” she asked.

Nick looked down at his hands and mumbled, “She said I could go to the bathroom.”

“You didn’t have a pass,” Ms. Cohen pressed.

“She forgot to give me one.”

Ms. Cohen turned to Winnie, “Is this true?” she asked.

“No,” Winnie said.  “He asked to leave, but we weren’t done with instruction, so I told him no.”

Nick looked irritated.  “Yeah, but I HAD to leave,” he told Ms. Cohen.

“Oh really?  Why?”

He looked at both of them and then said baldly, “Because she hit me.  I asked to go to the bathroom, and she said no.  When I kept telling her I really needed to go because I might throw up, she slapped my face.”

Just as Nick threw out this little nugget, the principal walked into the room.  Winnie said the principal’s face quickly went white, and he stared at her.  She felt sick herself.

Luckily, Ms. Cohen wasn’t an idiot.  She just shook her head and said, “You’ll have to do better than that Nick.  Mr. Randall saw you in the halfway through third period, and he called me as well because you were laughing and throwing paper at another student in the hall.  So if she hit you, and I’m sure she didn’t, you certainly weren’t upset about it.”

As Mrs. Cohen pressed Nick for the truth, he just smiled stupidly and said, “Well, I really had to go, for real.”

Nick ended up in ISS for two days, but he wasn’t punished for basically threatening a teacher’s job with a false claim.  Winnie told me she spoke to him in the hallway the day he came back to class.

“Why would you make up a story like that?  Do you know what could happen?  That is a terrible thing to say about a teacher, especially me!” she said because I'm sure she didn't deserve it since she's "nicer" than other teachers.

But Nick didn’t see it as a problem.  “You always let us go before.  You weren’t fair.”

“Nick, it is fair.  You can’t just leave whenever you want.  And I’m really shocked that you would accuse me of doing something so awful, something I would never do.”

He smiled stupidly again.  “Oh Miss, it’s just a joke, anyway.”

“You don’t understand,” Winnie said.  “If the principal believed you, I could lose my job.  Is that what you want?”

Nick didn’t seem disturbed at all.  “It’s no big deal.  Besides, I can’t get in trouble again, or my dad said he won’t let me have his old car when he buys a new one.”

Winnie said she wanted to scream or sob.  “Nick, I’m the teacher.  You don’t leave my class without a pass, understand?”

Now he seemed irritated.  “Miss, why you being so uptight?”

Nick was only in Winnie’s class for another few days.  She went to the principal and asked to have him moved out, saying that she didn’t feel safe with a student who had no problems making false accusations against her.  Nick was moved into MY class after that, but his time with me will be described in another post.  I can tell you that he didn’t find me “fun” or “cool” at all.

Winnie had thought if her students liked her, they would do well in her class.  But she got them to like her by letting them have their way, which as most parents know, typically backfires, because it’s impossible always to let a child have his or her way.  When Winnie tried to insist on students completing work and finishing projects, grades plummeted, and students complained to the dean and their parents that she made the class “too difficult” and “played favorites.”  The administration was sick of hearing about her shortcomings and drew up an improvement plan for her.

The sad thing is that by not drawing clear boundaries and trying to win students over, Winnie ended up hurting the students and herself.  The class members learned nothing, and she got a poor evaluation in the process.  Winnie didn’t dare try to look for a job elsewhere; unless she had positive evaluations to show a principal, no one would consider her.  So she’s stuck at TCS.  Her chances of improving or getting mentoring help are nil, and she now has a reputation among the students as a teacher who’s both a pushover and “two-faced.”