Thursday, February 17, 2011

This Calling

A fellow teacher has recently drawn a lot of attention for her blog, a blog in which she criticized the high school students she has taught. Now it has become something of a media sensation and a possible First Amendment test case.

It looks as if the resolution to this drama will turn on a technicality. It was protected speech. It was done with the use of a school computer. It was technically anonymous. It wasn't anonymous: a photograph and enough other identifiers were there.

I am saddened that what is really a pretty ugly event will turn on a technicality like those I mentioned rather than be determined by sizing up the damage done in this instance.

At my first school a decade ago, my one administrator insisted on using the term "children" when referring to our students. We were at a middle school and I was teaching 9th graders. At times, calling these freshmen "children" seemed preposterous. But consistently calling them "children" helps one treat them like children which they essentially are despite their outward behaviors. Now that I teach older students, it helps for me to think of them as children still. Perhaps as I get older I see how youthful their behavior is, how relatively shallow their life experience still is, and how they take un-adult views on adult matters.

Thinking of them as children helps me put in context what they do, and helps me navigate when they run out of bounds. Thinking of them as children reminds me of how when I was 16 and 17 and 18 I did some pretty childish things for which I'm glad I didn't have to pay adult consequences.

So, my fellow teacher erred on her blogs by failing to treat these children as sensitively as children deserve treatment. Note that sensitive doesn't mean soft or passive. Sensitive means firm at many times. Sensitive includes the words "no" and sensitive can implement consequences for wrongdoing.

There's a fundamental guide toward our actions as teachers that this blogger violated. From my earliest days in this profession my supervisors, teachers, and veteran colleagues have pushed me to confine my comments to observable behavior. It's my job to reward or sanction behavior. It's my job to draw conclusions as to how best reach a student by studying behavior. If something is wrong, I need to keep my comments focused on behavior good and bad. It's not my job to evaluate or fix character. One might argue that it's my job (and that of other teachers) to instill character as we teach, and perhaps those individuals are right. Accomplishing that is anything but a perfect science, and it's something we best do by modeling and by speaking to behavior.

We run foul of our calling as teachers when we overlook the behaviors of youth and fail to see the children on our rosters. We can address the behaviors and help shape the children. But if we attack the children, we won't do anything to help the behaviors.

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