Education Opinion

Some ‘Tales Out of School’

By Patrick Welsh — June 18, 1986 7 min read

By the time kids reach high school, families are dealing with a youth culture that has its own powerful mores and values and is inaccessible to adults. Parents who are ambivalent, or hypocritical, about their convictions and beliefs at that point are in for trouble. Our guidance counselors all have firsthand evidence of the retreat-rout might be a better word--of parents.

A mother telephones. She wants a guidance counselor to tell her son that he can’t take the car next weekend. An agitated parent rings up just before school starts. She wants a counselor to persuade a recalcitrant son who’s sleeping off a hangover to catch the bus to school. A single, divorced mother comes to us for help with her 15-year-old daughter who’s been “taking off whenever she likes and shacking up with a guy who’s 21.” We find out later that the girl was just copying her mother’s behavior. Mom has been disappearing with her boyfriend on weekends, leaving her two teen-age daughters to look after themselves.

Another mother wants to be her daughter’s best friend. When the girl skips classes for weeks and announces plans to marry the latest in long line of ne’er-do-well boyfriends, her mom takes it as a personal betrayal rather than a reflection on her parenting. “How could she do this to me,” the mother sulks. “We were always so close, such good friends. I treated her like a sister. The two pregnancies and abortions were bad enough-but this!”

Integration vastly broadened the options available to all kids. It gave them the chance to be more than “black,” or “white"-not to mention “Oriental,” “poor,” or “prep"-and to express their individuality beyond those labels. But it never guaranteed that they would take advantage of the opportunity ....

The social separateness of races, classes, and ethnic groups is something of a disappointment to liberals who had high hopes that integration would happen quickly. ''It’s disappointing that my daughter has hardly any black friends,” said Jacqueline Berkman, whose daughter Kathy was in my English class in 1983-84. When Mrs. Berkman entered Baltimore’s Western High in the late 50’s, her black friends could eat only at “colored” restaurants, and suffered other forms of blatant discrimination. Berkman joined the Congress of Racial Equality and became active in civil rights. Now she says, “It’s ironic; I spent nights in jail with black friends after sit-ins. Now my daughter goes to a school that has as many blacks as whites, but almost all her friends are middle-class whites.” ...

But this isn’t really so surprising. Kids arrive at high school when their need to be accepted by their peers can be at odds with their struggle to establish an identity of their own. Left to their own devices, kids tend toward conformity, by race, class, ethnic group, nationality, even musical tastes. Racism isn’t the only kind of prejudice that’s at work at T.C. The reality is that on all levels, and in every racial, economic, nationality, and gender group there’s still plenty of irrational prejudice and just plain nastiness toward “those others.”

Schools have an obsession with time. There’s a compulsion to program and control every minute of the day-ironic when one considers that hours can be wasted on bored students. One of the best-loved cliches of administrators is “time on task.” Some insightful pedagogue at some school of education had concluded that the number of minutes a student spends on a particular assignment has a direct bearing on how well he or she learns it. School bureaucracies all over the country are now attempting to translate this revelation into all kinds of rules and regulations.

One educational consultant advising the Alexandria schools devised a way to soak up the “wasted” time at the start of each new class. A “sponge activity” -a brief assignment to be scrawled on the blackboard-would focus the attention of newly arrived students before they could relax or start a conversation with a classmate. This “innovation” reflected the current anxiety in education circles that too many precious minutes which students could be spending “on task” are being squandered.

Teaching methods that give us such things as the sponge activity are in an old tradition of schooling that holds that “the quiet child is the good child.” The trouble with this thinking is that it can destroy the spontaneity that makes school exciting. The goal seems to be a risk-free environment-- one in which classes never get out of hand, subjects taught do not threaten or offend students, and grading is “in line” with normal curves.

The longer I teach, the more I realize the importance of “staying loose.” The rigid, programmed class leaves no room for wonder, feeling, emotion. The books on pedagogy stress the importance of control in the classroom. But it’s often when things are a little out of control-when I get a queasy feeling in my stomach-that real learning takes place.

For years, when I would teach a novel I controlled what passages were read out loud in class. Not long ago, I let kids in my advanced literature class read and comment on their favorite passages. One day, Jeanne Berger, a sweet, innocent- looking girl in my seventh-period class chooses the most sexually explicit passage in William Faulkner’s Light in August. This is when the main character, Joe Christmas, sleeps with a woman for the first time. The passage is Faulkner at his best, but I’d often shied away from it, worrying about what the kids would think. Jeanne gives it a wonderful reading, bringing out all the beauty and pathos of the scene in a way I never could. I think to myself, How horribly we teachers underestimate kids.

Staying loose also gives luck a chance to work its way. Some of my best “pedagogical moves” come by pure chance at times by default. One day I walk into my sixth-period class intending to pass out copies of Henry IV, Part I. Panic! It suddenly hits me that all the copies are with my two other advanced classes. I glance desperately at the book shelf and pull down 30 copies of Toni Morrison’s novel about a black family, Song of Solomon. The all-white class goes wild. “Best thing we’ve read all year.” “Why don’t we read more like it?” I had been into the heavies--Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hardy, Joyce. But because we had run out of Henry IV, all my advanced classes now read Morrison’s novel.

One of the biggest factors in the morale of teachers, and one that’s seldom mentioned in the media hype about the teacher crisis, is the kids they teach. I think of the English teacher who was miserable when all her students were in the slowest track. She became ecstatic when she was assigned several classes of average students. That’s not surprising to me. I’ve politicked and maneuvered to be able to teach my three advanced English classes a day, made up of most of the brightest kids in the senior class. That’s an acknowledgment that may sound callous to someone outside the education ~ tern. But most teachers can identify with my ambition. Without those kids, I doubt I’d be as enthusiastic as I am about teaching ....

The reality is that teachers are tracked along with kids. Given the difficulties that schools face in firing incompetent teachers, it’s often easier to assign them to the least desirable students, while the better teachers usually get the brightest. But there’s a “catch 22" here. Confronted with slow learners, there is little opportunity for a teacher to improve. Teaching slow learners, people eventually get to feel demoralized and defeated. And therein lies the dilemma. The caliber of the kids being instructed is a major factor in whether a teacher feels conditions at school for him or her are good or bad. By giving the poorest teachers to the poorest students, administrators are tacitly saying that there is not much hope for either to improve.

Maybe the qualities of individualism and nonconformity that so often annoy school people actually hold the key to a kid’s ultimate success in life. Prince Hal’s remark in Henry IV, Part II, ''Let the end try the man,” is a favorite of mine. I think kids like what it says about growing up, for Shakespeare makes it clear that the experiences of a wild and rowdy youth prepared Hal for the heavy responsibilities of kingship.

High school is a place where mistakes can be mad&-maybe even should be. We school people forget that too often. In high school, the costs of failure are still low. Later, the price will rise. So who is to say who is better prepared for the future- the obedient grind or the free-spirited experimenter? Years of teaching have persuaded me to be cautious about leaping to conclusions when predicting the future of 17- and 18-year-olds.

A version of this article appeared in the June 18, 1986 edition of Education Week