"Don?t go to the Parent-Teacher Council meeting," advised my daughter, who is a 9th-grader at a large urban high school. "They’ll only try to scare you."
I shouldn’t have been too surprised at how accurately she summed up at least one salient aspect of the culture at her school. After two days at the orientation for new students, she commented on the school’s basic M.O., "I’ve figured out that they use fear a lot."
We wondered what she meant. Wasn’t the school using the orientation as an opportunity to help the kids get to know each other, get acquainted with the school, and gain a measure of comfort before entering the big, scary secondary grades? No, apparently not. What were they doing?
"Well, they explained how we would get an F. And that if we got an F, we would get expelled. But if we got an F+, we could go to summer school to make it up."
The next day, they handed out candies to kids (keep in mind that these are 9th graders) who finished their math worksheets. And so the flip side of punishment made itself apparent, that is, reward.
I suppose it should not be too surprising that a traditional, inner-city school operating on low resources would have too much in its motivator tool box beyond the usual carrot and stick. The accepted mentality about learning, working, or doing just about anything besides watching TV is that it’s a bitter pill that must be swallowed. The idea that kids (and adults) might find joy in learning or feel inherent gratification in their work seems to have been beaten out of us by a society that holds out consumption as the main source of satisfaction. A popular radio station in Boston plays music "to help your work day fly by." And that about sums it up. The workday and the school day are something that have to be tolerated, gotten through, survived.
My family has taken an unusual approach to schooling in the past (both of our kids have homeschooled for most of their lives), and so we are naÃ¯ve in this new environment. This commentary is personal and anecdotal — a reflection on schooling from a family that is new at it.
At back-to-school night, held soon after classes started, we learned something about the way fear and stress operate in schools. Not only were mundane stress-causing devices in place (the mis-firing bell ringing at arbitrary times, which teachers simply talk over; the public broadcasting system mistakenly airing some angry conversation; the limited time between classes — three minutes in a school that is the size of a very large city block), but the teachers and administrators took every opportunity to raise the specter of failure.
The range of ways you could fail was enormous — from failing to fill out the proper paperwork to failing to secure a scholarship. Inducing anxiety about the mundane along with the potentially life-changing results in pure anxiety about everything. It’s hard to keep perspective about what matters and what doesn’t. The school uses back-to-school night to ask parents to ally themselves with teachers against the child.
One guidance counselor, who acted like she was reporting from a subdivision of the police force, held up a piece of paper. "Do you see this?" she asked all the now (and formerly) petrified parents. "This is your paycheck." We stared back blankly. "This is the report card schedule. It will tell you how much you’re getting paid. Your child’s report card, you see, is the return you’ll be getting on your investment. You’ve invested a lot in your children, and now it’s pay-back time!"
She waved the report card schedule with a flourish while the parents waited obediently to try to make sense of what she was saying. I, for one, kept trying to reconcile everything-my-daughter-means-to-me with the idea that the flimsy letter grades that will some day be coming home on a flimsy piece of paper are somehow a form of compensation — something she owes me.
Years ago, Paulo Freire criticized the banking model of education, whereby teachers treat students like a passive vault that holds knowledge. Teachers put the knowledge in and then get it back out in the form of tests or homework. But the guidance counselor on back-to-school night brought the banking model of education to a whole new level. "You’ll be getting a good return on your investment," she said, "if your child brings home As and Bs. But if your child is bringing home Cs," and here, I swear, she wagged her finger at us, "you are not getting the paycheck you deserve."
I don’t even believe in grades, and I’m not too fond of traditional schooling, but this lady was scaring me. All the ways I know my kid and feel confidence in her were getting crowded out by fear. People are judged by letter grades, after all, and what if hers aren’t good? What if she doesn’t get into college? What if she doesn’t get a scholarship? What if she fails? What if we fail her by not instilling enough fear in her about her potential failure? What will we do? What will we do? When we got home, I asked to see her notebooks. "The teachers all say we’re supposed to be checking your notebooks once a week to ensure you’re not getting behind in anything."
She indicated her backpack loaded with binders and 10-pound textbooks. "Feel free," she said nonchalantly, but I could tell she was surprised. We had never checked her work before. We just trusted she was doing her best and would ask if she needed help. This system was working fine. It didn’t feel good to change gears and perform this policing function. Nor did I relish the fact that in subsequent weeks, I was starting to ask, "So, how’d you do on that test? How’s your grade in biology?" No wonder she didn’t want me to go to the Parent-Teacher Council meeting. She could see I was not immune to their fear-inspiring tactics. After years of homeschooling and being outside of traditional, fear-based schooling, her armature against these tactics was perhaps in better condition than mine.
When you participate in an institution, you start traveling down the pathways that the institution offers you. You speak the language because otherwise you won’t be understood. The institution of school prepares you for the institution of work and passive citizenship — key ingredients to maintaining the current power structure. Fear limits your creativity; swinging back and forth between punishment and reward keeps you oriented toward external motivators; arbitrary authority acclimates you to subservience; severe boredom dulls your mind, lowers your expectations, and teaches you how to tolerate life rather than be an agent in it.
Many of the kids graduating from this school will end up in jobs — either white-collar or blue, where they carry out orders. Perhaps a few will be in positions of power where they make important decisions and give orders. But all will have been trained to think that there is no other way it could be. They will learn, too, that the parameters of the institution allow for occasional random acts of kindness (the next generation’s selfless teachers) at one end and extreme acts of evil at the other (the next generation’s abusive cops). Systemic evils (war, profiteering, racism, sexism, etc.) will go largely unnoticed because they are the roads we walk, the language we speak, the walls we live inside of everyday. That’s what schools teach: the parameters are set. You must operate within them. There’s no point in contesting them. Get used to it.
When my daughter failed to note her section number in the designated spot on her art project, she received an F, and the teacher threw the piece away. I emailed the teacher, expressing respect for the challenges of having so many students, but also registering our concern about how demoralizing his tactics were. He did not write back, but he told Zoe the next day that he would give her partial credit for her work. "What does partial credit mean?" I found myself asking her?as if that is what mattered. It’s not what matters, but there’s no other way to engage with her teacher, and so you use the language that is best understood — that of grades and credit, rather than what matters much more, i.e., creativity, expression, critical thinking, collective engagement, and effort.
And it’s not the teacher’s fault either. He has about 150 students — Boston public high schools having a 31-student-per-class maximum. And he functions in the same overly stressed environment with insufficient resources. On the same day he slammed my kid with the F, he had been yelling at the class for wasting paint. Maybe he had hit the wall himself, dealing with the contradictions of being an art teacher in an overcrowded school with not enough money for paint and the asinine job of assigning grades to students’ work.
Everyone, then, is required to function according to the norms of the institution. Teachers, too, deal with arbitrary authority (from administrators, state and city budget decisions, work rules, and standardized tests). Then they turn around and dish it out. More examples: Zoe’s A in Latin got significantly reduced when the teacher discovered her binder was not properly organized. She almost got a zero on an English test because she had left one question blank. Why? Because she didn’t understand the question. But then she heard the teacher announce that leaving any blanks would result in a zero, so she went back to her desk and made up something that she thought would fit. She received full credit, thus learning an important lesson in bullshitting.
Maybe it’s not so bad to learn how to bullshit. And maybe we could all use some experience dealing with arbitrary authority and rigid institutional requirements. They are key survival skills. But as parents we should watch out for the ways we help do the school’s dirty work. One parent I know got upset because her kid’s biology teacher was not keeping up with the assigned pace for moving through the textbook. How would her child do on the mandatory citywide biology test at the end of the year if the teacher didn’t keep up? What gets the parent’s attention is the teacher’s failure to stick to norms. But is anyone asking if the norms make sense?
I find myself feeling appalled at the content in her textbooks. And then I feel appalled that the schools are so underfunded that they don’t have enough of them. How contradictory is that? "These textbooks suck, and you should get more of them."
How many other parents, are out there pushing schools to live up to their norms without questioning those norms in the first place?
How many parents are abiding by the terms set by the school system and agreeing to play enforcer at home?
The only teacher I really learned anything from in high school was my AP U.S. history teacher who never made it past the Rosenbergs. He got stuck there because it was a powerful moment in history and it really mattered. I remember how he challenged us to think and how I could tell that that mattered to him more than anything else did. Students were upset with him for failing to put them through their paces. Their AP scores would surely suffer. But I remember — even at the time — feeling grateful that he expected me to think. And to think hard.
There is pleasure in thinking hard and using your mind to solve problems you are interested in. That’s what I want for my kid — and for every kid. Not just for its liberatory aspects, but because the survival of the planet probably depends on it.
My daughter is no doubt getting something positive from her school. Many of her teachers genuinely care about the kids and their ability to learn. But the requirements of the institution include the fundamental lessons: Do what you’re told. Don’t ask why. Accept arbitrary punishment and reward. Reduce your expectations. Nobody said life was fair or fun. You can hold on until the weekend, the next holiday, graduation, a week’s vacation from your job, and finally retirement. We all know what happens after that. You die. And the best you can hope for is that it all flew by, like the radio station promises?