Professor Richardson asked 15-year-old Ian what he would most like to change about public school. With 25 people in the room, most of them graduate students and current or future teachers, here’s what Ian said earlier this week:
[Ian:] I think it would be the teacher-to-student relationship, how they talk to you. They talk down to you, like you were a lesser person. They treated you like an animal. My parents treated me like a person. My teachers at school—the people I’m supposed to be looking up to—my role models—treated me like crap. You couldn’t have an opinion. If you disagreed with something, they didn’t care. That’s what I would change: me being allowed to voice an opinion. And also have a say in my life, instead of you just telling me I have to raise my hand and ask to go to the bathroom. And then tell me No because someone else already went to the bathroom. They didn’t treat me like a person. That’s what I’d change.
Ian wasn’t talking about disciplinary situations. In fact he had no disciplinary record and got good grades. He was talking about everyday classroom interactions, and why he chose to come to The Circle School after many years in public schools.
The teachers Ian was talking about would be appalled to hear Ian. Surely, they are well-intentioned, earnestly dedicated, and strive to be respectful of their students. They are probably much like the humane, respectful education students Ian was speaking to.
What’s going on here? How can dedicated, respectful teachers appear so disrespectful to a bright, easygoing, responsible 15-year-old?
This week I traveled with Ian and two other Circle Schoolers to Millersville University, invited by Dr. Scott Richardson, to attend a session of his course, “Social Foundations of Education.” For three hours we talked with his college students and a few guests about democratic education at The Circle School and in “open syllabus” college classes.
After Ian spoke about disrespect, Dr. Richardson observed that “public school teachers have different pressures,” followed by an insight from Eugene Matusov, Ph.D., visiting from University of Delaware for this event.
[Dr. Richardson:] This sounds like it should be pretty easy, right? I think everyone would agree that teachers should be nice, and legitimize what the students are feeling. But to actually do that is pretty tough. Public school teachers don’t necessarily have enough time… My wife, a public school teacher, would argue that she doesn’t have enough time or space to even just talk to a colleague about this. So, what Ian is saying is common sense, but to do that work is really difficult for public school teachers.
[Dr. Matusov:] One thing that makes teachers disrespectful to their students, including me as a teacher, is this: If you are trying to make your students arrive at a certain point, then you stop listening to the student because you are trying to force them to arrive at a preset idea. Think of how you write lesson plans: “At the end of the lesson, the student will know…” In my view, this puts you in a position of disrespect, because you are no longer listening to the student. You are forcing them to arrive at a certain curricular endpoint.
Right there it is. Teachers of an imposed curriculum must direct students to prescribed facts, techniques, and viewpoints, and must do so within rigid constraints of time and space. To meet the demands of the job, particularly regarding preset curricular endpoints, teachers find they cannot pay much attention to the opinions and aspirations of their students. The unwanted effect is a dehumanizing of both teacher and student.
High school teacher Bryan Campbell added that it is very difficult for teachers to create space in which students can develop their ideas and their capacity for critical thinking. Later a high school teacher commented that teachers’ evaluations often emphasize the ability to “coerce, trick or otherwise manipulate students towards curricular endpoints, further pressuring them to engage in disrespectful practices towards their students.”
Capable teachers struggle to educate humanely. Capable students feel profoundly disrespected. This week at Millersville University, one of Pennsylvania’s leading educators of educators, the lamentable consensus was that the problem with public school is neither the teachers nor the students: it’s the system itself.
What do you think? What would you change about public school?
NOTE: Millersville photo courtesy of Dr. Richardson. Quoted dialogue was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.