MixED meSSaGe
September 17, 2008

The scene:
You're back in fourth grade again. Ten years old. Good kid, never been in trouble before ... but your pencil sharpener breaks one evening at home. Knowing you'll need to sharpen your pencil tomorrow, you shove the pieces back in your pencilbox and don't think much of it.

School the next day, sure enough, your stupid pencil lead breaks. You pull out the broken pencil sharpener - which at this point, is essentially, a small razor blade.

End result?

Suspension "for at least two days and [he] could face further disciplinary action."
District spokesman Randy Wall said "We're always going to do something to make sure the child understands the seriousness of having something that could potentially harm another student, but we're going to be reasonable."

Original Story
The school's letter

There is a very fine balance between encouraging kids to learn and bashing them over the head with lead pipes. Most of our school districts are doing a crappy job of managing this balance. We have school districts like Dallas who are teaching our students that paying attention to the rules doesn't matter. After all, if the teacher says your homework is due Tuesday, you no longer get a zero for not turning it in - you get to turn it in for credit at any time.

And then we have these ridiculous zero tolerance policies which mean that a broken pencil sharpener - admittedly this is a blade now - means a two day suspension.

This reminds me of reading Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (NO, NOT like the movie). In one of the many "lectures" throughout the book, a teacher talks about how the twentieth century dealt with "juvenile delinquents" - and compared the method to housebreaking a dog. The character claimed that the juvenile justice system was akin to sometimes telling the dog, "naughty puppy," when he messed in the house ... sometimes saying nothing ... sometimes cuddling the dog ... sometimes locking the dog up for a while. Then, when the dog was an adult and peed in the house, taking the dog out back and shooting him.

There's a bit of truth in that description. Some kids get millions of second chances as a juvenile (oh, you can turn your homework in later ... oh, she's a good kid, we'll let "it" slide this time). Others get no chances and are locked up, where, we know from plenty of criminal justice research, they simply learn better ways to commit crimes and rarely get the chance to become "good, upstanding citizens." Then, suddenly they're introduced to the adult system.

And when I think of the mixed messages we are sending by "bolstering students' self-esteem" by not "allowing" them to fail ... and the suspension of a ten year old for not realizing that the blade from his busted piece of plastic pencil sharpener was an "illegal" blade ... I have to wonder what the hell it is we're doing to these kids.

Of course I don't want any kids thinking it's a good thing to bring razor blades to school. But you have to treat these things according to the particular situation. It's subjective, not an absolute, computer driven if/then proposition.

Life is NOT an if/then proposition. It's messy. It is often unfair and I don't think that we ever get it completely, totally, consistently right.

But we have to keep trying, keep thinking of ways to improve upon what we have.

Frankly, a ten-year-old boy who has never been in trouble before and who bursts into tears when the gravity of his situation is suddenly slammed home is probably not a kid who needs suspension and counseling. He bears further watching by the teachers - let's make sure this isn't an early start to a pattern of trying to slip things past the rules. Make him write a paper on what he did wrong and what he should have done.

If we're talking a ten-year-old who often opposes the teachers, who defies authority, who has been known to be aggressive or angry (as a pattern, not as an occasional situation) to her peers ... well, then we need some kind of intervention.

We have a serious problem in our schools across the United States. Too lax in some areas, rules too rigid in others ... I'm afraid the mixed messages we're sending these kids are going to haunt us for generations to come as they realize that deadlines do matter, that all actions have some kind of consequences ... and as they become angry with us for not giving them chances when they needed them and for being too lax when they needed structure.

Our teachers are too overworked, too pressured, to make the difference that so many of them thought they would make. Low pay, long hours and too many hassles with school officials who are too concerned about schools looking good so the district can score more federal funds ... administrators who have forgotten what it's like to sit in the classroom and don't connect with the children in their schools ... schools so large that children slip through the cracks like water through a sieve.

Really, it's amazing that we have any people who stick with teaching for more than a couple of years. I mean, we tell them that the work they are doing is the most important work - and yet we pay them one of the lowest professional salaries (same as with cops and firefighters). Then, we give the power to the parents and the students and distrust "them there ivory tower teacher types" when they dare to exert their professional opinions.

Is it any wonder some teachers would like to drug our kids into submission? Is it any wonder they prefer to develop absolute rules and zero tolerance policies so they can try to cram as many through the system as possible and still escape with some shred of energy for themselves?

Yeah. I gotta wonder. What messages are we sending our children?

Posted by Red Monkey at September 17, 2008 12:11 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Why Johnny Won't Learn and Mrs. Curnutt Is Tired of the System | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


PandoraWilde said:

That's a damned good question--what are we teaching our kids?

We have supposed "Zero Policies" but certain kids are allowed to waltz out of them, either because Daddy gives money or Mommy's on the school board that decides salary increases and contract renewals, while certain other kids are fried to a cinder by the same policies when in truth they didn't do anything maliciously wrong.

Then we wonder why some kids distrust any system set up to help them, and other kids think that society's rules and regulations apply to everyone but them, like some of the kids I see on a certain G-named website. No one relates it to the rules and their selective enforcement--many people just conclude that certain kids are bad from the start and others really should get special treatment (those mommies and daddies again trying to bail out kids who are in systems they don't have control over this time).

I've long ago concluded the system is fucked up, because no matter how strict the enforcement is supposed to be, it is still administered by human beings with their own personal agendas that govern how they do their jobs. I'm not saying it's right, because it's not. I'm just saying that that's how it goes in practice even tho it looks great on paper.

September 18, 2008 1:42 AM


Tara R. said:

Don't get me started on the current public school system. It's broken and getting worse.

September 18, 2008 6:24 PM


Lulubelle B said:

I saw this on Drudge a few days ago. What kind of message does this send to a good kid? You need to look at intent, as well as action. I like your idea about writing an essay, but suspension and counseling? I guess he's lucky he's not being placed in a special school for difficult/unruly children. [sigh]

September 21, 2008 1:41 PM
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