23 July 2014

Responds Well to Praise -- A Song of the School in Verse From a Former Happy Idiot


I'm going to be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Thought true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender
From The Pretender by Jackson Browne

I feel like I’m making a difference. -  A lot of people.

I was teaching history at a public middle school. Five members of my teaching team including yours truly were having our weekly meeting. We were being told by an administrator about a new student who would be joining us in a few days. Two teachers who were still new to the education biz were busily scribbling notes. Notes that they’d never look at again. (They’d learn.) Everything the administrator said about this new lad made him sound like he’d recently been kicked out of hades for bad behavior. We got warning after warning. Then we were told — and I’d heard this one a million times before and after — he responds well to praise. I then happened to observe the teacher to my left scribbling those very words in her notebook. Responds well to praise.

Great. Who doesn’t? And more to the point, is this little tyrant going to give us anything to praise him for?

He didn’t. My recollection is a bit vague but I believe his stay with us could be numbered in days owing to a violation of one sort or another. Perhaps he exceeded his maximum allowed body count. If only he’d done something praiseworthy and one of us had been quick enough to offer a pat on the back or kudos or an attaboy or a trophy or medal of honor or certificate of appreciation or just a psalm. But alas.

Praise had become a big thing by the time I left public schools and began the restoration of my sanity. As in the case of the aforementioned little Lucifer, it was believed to have unique redemptive qualities and the ability to transform demons into angels. One piece of wisdom a principal imparted to us — and this one universally believed by people who never set foot in an actual classroom — was the idea that for every admonition we doled out to a student there must be five utterances of praise given to this same child.

Let's see how this might work. So little Tommy interrupts teacher to talk to another student, teacher re-directs Tommy and now is in debt to the lad to the tune of five hallelujahs. Let’s try it: way to get out a pencil, Tommy (1), thanks for pointing out the page we’re on to Cindy (2), good job lending a piece of paper (3). At this point there’s just two to go for the slate to be clean. But then…Tommy, you cannot say that word in class! Now you’re into the little bugger for five more plus the two previously owed. Seven. And most of the class time is gone. It could carryover into the next day. And what if he gets out of his seat early? You could be up to 12. Plus its so easy to lose count especially when you’ve got a tote board going with Rachael who was chewing gum and then decapitated Roger.

The whole deal sounds utterly ridiculous. But I have a confession. I lied. You aren’t really expected to offer five hosannahs for every stop-beating-Sam-with-a-tire-iron. The actual number is ten. As in 10. As in five multiplied by two. As in half a score.

That’s some fucked up shit, man.

I subbed for a couple of years while I was getting my TESL Certificate (teacher of english as a second language) and I actually observed some teachers gamely trying to praise their charges to the hilt. It was sadly funny to hear people being praised for being in their seats or sitting quietly doing their work or not talking. Good god it must have been exhausting for the teacher.

Mind you I’m quite the one for recognizing the achievements of students. Its something I learned from coaching youth soccer. Young athletes and students all too often have their errors pointed out and themselves focus on those missteps without enough recognition of improvement or for extra efforts. I’m big on motivating young people and building their self esteem and giving credit where it is due and offering encouragement. Teaching students from all over the world  as I do (most of whom from 17-25 years old) I am forever cheerleading and singling out students especially because they tend to be too hard on themselves. But here’s the deal: I do it when its earned. There’s nothing phony baloney about it. Sure I may go a bit overboard sometimes but I always start from a real place. It is never forced or contrived.

Our public schools are primarily staffed by fantastic dedicated hard working teachers who are under administrators — from all I can gather from my experiences and what I hear and read — who are a bunch of fucking idiots. The kind of lame brains who would want you to say: hey Putin another day without detonating a nuclear device, way to go pal!

Telling the next Charles Manson that he did a good job lending an eraser isn’t even a tiny step in addressing this child’s problem. Nor is it going to do much to keep other students from having their instruction interrupted when the little monster goes ballistic during class time. So this is the real problem. Schools do not have the wherewithal to really help Tommy. Certainly not by the time he’s in middle school. For most kids the ship has sailed on their school careers if not their entire lives by the time they're nine years old. Or sooner.

All schools -- from an administrative standpoint -- really do is mask problems. Like when the school I taught at decided not to continue in-house suspension because it looked bad that the vast majority of students in it were African American. So let’s hide the symptom rather than seeking a cure.

Sweeping problems under rugs is a speciality of public school administrators as is avoiding law suits and keeping the place looking sharp for one school board members come by. Addressing real problems in an effective matter...not so much. I do hasten to add that in addition to their own incompetence they are hamstrung by societal issues. Schools either don't get enough resources the wrong kind or spend too much dough paying their mucky mucks.

I could go on about schools. And on. And on. The six years since I escaped with my soul have allowed me time for a lot of reflection. I continue to be astounded at the work done by teachers and am proud to have associated with most of the ones I worked with over the years (there was one where I worked who I believe is still there who was real doozy of lying immoral scoundrel but she was the exception). Teachers are asked a helluva lot, given very little and respond like heroes.

They also respond well to praise -- but don’t need it.

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