Monday, February 1, 2016

Ruling by fear, and rules!

“Teachers, we’ve been having an issue with students in the hallways.  When we stop the student, he or she is telling us that the teacher allows students to leave early.  It is very important that we continue instruction right up until the bell rings…”

I’m sucking down some Coke Zero in a vain attempt to stay awake through this staff meeting.  Once again, we’re being told that a problem “has arisen” with something and are given vague, general threats as to what SHOULD happen if we are caught doing said thing.

“Teachers who allow students to leave class without passes and before the bell will face disciplinary measures.”  "Facing disciplinary measures" is one of Ms. Lear’s favorite phrases.  I know, because we hear it every week.

“Excuse me,” Patty says, “can you tell me who it is who is letting the students out early?  Because for all we know, if you asked a student, that student may be lying to you about getting out early.”

Ms. Lear looked mildly annoyed.  “Yes, of course, students don’t ALWAYS tell the truth, but we’re seeing a trend – “

Low, angry muttering begins.  Patty pipes up again.  “Look, if the problem is limited to one or two teachers, that is a problem that should be addressed with them.  I can tell you right now that I do NOT allow students to leave my class without a pass, and not within the last 15 minutes of class.” 

“Right,” Ms. Lear says, more visibly annoyed, “But this is a reminder for those who don’t know – “

“Who doesn’t know this?” someone calls out from the back.  “We all know this!  That’s why we have passes!”  The muttering is getting louder. 

I start snickering, and then choke a little on my Coke Zero.  As amusing as this little scene is becoming, I know it’s going nowhere because these are the same issues I’ve raised myself in the past.

Here’s the deal, administrators and managers: If you have a problem with something a teacher is doing, then TALK TO THAT TEACHER.  Don’t issue a general warning during a staff meeting.  You’re wasting everyone’s time, and the person who needs the message won’t get it.  If a general policy reminder were all anyone needed, you’d never have to give them more than once. 

I like the fact that administrators never seem to use the techniques with the teachers that they want us to use with the students.  Issuing a general, vague warning to a class about “students who throw trash on the floor will be disciplined” does nothing to keep the trash off the floor.  Instead, a teacher should figure out where the trash seems to accumulate, keep an eye on that part of the room and then tell Rodney that he’s staying after class to clean said trash up.  And really, does it even surprise you that Rodney is the one dumping his old papers on the floor?

But administrators still use this method of nonspecific warnings and threats.  Is it because we’re all adults that they figure we’ll feel bad enough to start policing each other and make their job easier?  Or is it because Mr. Shutz will have a breakdown over getting a stern talking-to over not keeping his grade book updated?  And let’s be honest, we all know that Mr. Shutz is the problem anyway. 

As most adults have learned, unless warnings are addressed to the one person causing the problem, everyone else stops listening.  “This doesn’t concern me,” they think, and if it never concerns them, they’ll tune out more and more of what is said.  Those teachers who are causing the problems stop listening as well, because, like Rodney, they haven’t been caught yet.

The fun aspect of all the vague threats we got in staff meeting was that the administrators weren’t willing to hold to their own rules either.  One day in class, I received a call from the office.

“Hi, Ms. Marlowe.  Can you send Samid to the auditorium?”

I looked at the clock.  “Sorry, I can’t.”


“It’s the last 15 minutes of class, so I can’t send any students out.”

“Well, he’s a student ambassador, and we have some important visitors –“ the receptionist started.  I interrupted, “Right, but the administration says that we CANNOT send students out during the last few minutes of class.”

“You just give him a pass…”

“No, sorry, not allowed, it’s the rule.”  She said okay, and I hung up.

Ten seconds later, Ms. Lear herself called.  “Ms. Marlowe, we need you to send Samid to-“

Here I interrupted again.  “To the auditorium, I know, but I can’t because it’s now the last 12 minutes of class.”

“It’s okay; you can give him a pass just this once.”

“Actually, I can’t, because we were told in the staff meeting that we’d be disciplined if we did that.”

Long pause.  “Well, the administration needs him now.  We have some really important visitors.  Senator Fallows is here, and -”

“Shouldn’t Samid or his teachers know about this in advance, so we could avoid breaking the RULE?”  I asked pointedly.

Ms. Lear seemed a bit flustered.  “Well, you know, things come up unexpectedly sometimes…”

“I’m sure they do,” I responded pleasantly.  “But I feel it’s important to abide by the rules, not just for my students, but for myself, right?  We can’t always be making exceptions when it’s convenient.” There was another long pause. 

“The principal is asking for you to send him now.”

“I’ll tell you what.  I’ll have him come just as soon as I’m finished with my instruction.”

“Um, okay…”

“Thanks!” I said brightly.  I hung up the phone and looked at the class.  Samid was standing up by his desk with his books in his hands, an expectant look on his face. 

“Sit down, Samid,” I said mildly.  “We have about 10 minutes of class left, and I know you’re not done with your work yet.”  He sat back down and pulled out his notebook.

Rules are rules, right?  I’m sure the distinguished visitors were impressed that SOMEONE was following them, and the administration was probably even more impressed by my slavish adherence.   Clearly, at least one person was listening in staff meeting.