Of course, MY students are perfect….

There’s been some news going around the teaching blog-collective about one Ms. Natalie Munroe out in Pennsylvania. The reason for this is that she posted on her blog a list of comments that she felt would be more appropriate to some of her students, rather than the canned “Lacks motivation” or “easily distracted.” She came up with a list that she felt was more accurate, which included such comments as:

“Frightfully dim”
“Rat-like”
“Am concerned your kid is going to open fire on the school”
“I hate your kid”
“Seems smarter than she actually is”
“Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”
“Dresses like a street walker.”

Among other things.

It looks like basically a teacher who had reached her breaking point and decided to vent years of frustration all at once. Of course, she has been suspended from her duties as a teacher, and has become the center of a media circus, with defenders and detractors on both sides. Those who have her back say that there is too much of a burden placed upon teachers to be selfless, unflawed people whose only thought in the world is the betterment of their charges. When a child succeeds, the parents pat themselves on the back. When the child fails, they blame the teacher. Add to that the huge entitlement issues that come from a generation of kids who all got gold medals just for trying hard in gym class and you have a whole lot of pressure as a teacher just to keep these kids awake in class, much less to try and teach them anything.

On the other hand, there are those who wonder why, if she has such strong negative feelings towards these kids, she is even bothering to be a teacher at all? Obviously she’s not enjoying her work, and the teacher who doesn’t like what she does is not going to teach very well. Clearly she needs to find a career more suited to her temperament. Besides, perhaps the reason the kids aren’t learning from her is that they can sense her disdain no matter how she tries to cover it up. They know she doesn’t like them, and the feeling is returned in spades.

Here’s where I come down on this: Every teacher has thought the exact same thing about their students at one time or another. Any teacher who says, “Why I just love each and every one of them!” is a liar. Maybe they’ve wiped their memory clean of the bad kids, but I guarantee there has been at least one student in their career who generated fantasies of a burlap sack, some bricks and a river.

But you just can’t say these things. Not because you have no right to say them – of course you do – but because it will put you in a river of shit. Comments like this made by a teacher reflect badly on the school and on the other teachers who work there. After all, unless she’s a lone sociopath, it’s highly likely that there are other teachers in her school who think the same things about the same students, but still manage to slap on a fake smile before every class and pretend they care about how each and every kid is doing. Teachers are held to such a high standard that we are not allowed to air our true feelings in a public forum, lest those true feelings contaminate everyone else. And all it takes is one angry parent, one call from some kind of community group or – gods forbid – a lawyer, and the teacher who was just having a really bad day can find herself out of a job.

And you know what? It really isn’t fair. Exhibit A: www.ratemyteachers.com

This is a site where parents and students can rate their teachers in terms of easiness, helpfulness, clarity and popularity, and then leave a comment. I looked up one of my old teachers, one that I rather liked, and found comments such as:

* “Can be a real jackass when you get on his bad side.”
* “Okay teacher. Knows his stuff, but he’s a little to into himself and doesn’t seem to understand that students have lives too. He can put on a big tantrum and thinks his word is that of god.”
* “…sometimes he’s extremely disrespectful to students”
* “hes got an attitude he should drop it”

On another teacher I had and liked immensely:
* “Plays favorites like a 10 year old baseball coach.”
* “Prone to little fits. Only really pays attention to kiss-ups”

On a teacher I picked randomly whom I have never met:
* “one of the most insanely idiotic classes I have ever had. At no point in his rambling, incoherent class was their anything even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought.”
* a bullshit buddhist ******* who needs the stick pulled out of his ***”
* “creepy. went for extra help and he’d only talk to the girls…”

This, of course, is an egregious double standard. Students and parents are allowed to heap whatever kind of public abuse they want on teachers, who just have to smile and take it. When a teacher turns around and does the same thing, they get suspended, possibly fired. Thanks to the anonymity of the internet, people feel free to say the things that they would never say to a person face-to-face, and so have no problem loosing all kinds of vitriol against teachers. [1]

But gods forbid a teacher should let loose about what he or she feels. This is even though, unlike the teachers on Rate My Teachers who are being called out by name, Ms. Munroe stays very general and never names the students in question. As she says in a blog entry responding to this situation, “When my boss makes a general comment about something at a faculty meeting that is pointed at certain individuals but not all of us, I don’t sit there and think, ‘I can’t believe he said that about me!’ I know if it’s directed at me or not. I ask myself, ‘Are these things that I do? No? Then it must be for someone else.'”

Likewise, if you’re a parent and you don’t know if your kid is probably one of the ones she’s talking about, then maybe you need to start paying more attention to your kid.

It’s absolutely unfair, and not just to the teachers. Students need to be told when they are screwing up. They need to know what kind of behavior is appropriate and what is not. They need to know that what they’re doing is not going to lead in any way to a better life, and if that means a teacher resorting to direct language, then so be it. In addition, parents have to be relieved of this myth that their children are all perfect little genius angels. As much fun as it is to try and shift the burden of raising your kids onto the shoulders of a low-wage public school teacher, the fact remains that you are the parent and you are who is ultimately responsible for raising a decent human being. If someone has to slap you upside the head from time to time so that you remember that little fact, then that’s what has to happen.

I would truly love to see a “Rate My Students” website go up, available only to teachers, where they could post candid comments about kids and their parents. It would make my heart sing…. [2]

All that said, however, I still think that Ms. Munroe did the wrong thing. Yes, it’s not fair, but as Grampa said in The Princess Bride, “Who ever said life was fair? Where is that written?” The fact of the matter is that a teacher just can’t say those things in a public place like a blog. The current educational paradigm, wherein all teachers must automatically be selfless saints whose only concern is for the betterment of their students, is harmful and unfair, but that’s how it is. If you really can’t get through the day without telling someone what schmucks your students are, that’s what paper journals are for. Write down everything, put it in a drawer, and feel better.

Once you’ve done that, you go back to work and try to focus on those reasons why you chose to be a teacher. Take note of the kids who thank you for helping them, who improve with hard work, who come up with well thought-out observations and answers. I felt a warm glow in what passes for my heart when I saw that some of my students had added the books we’d read to their favorite books on Facebook. Cherish those kids and know that there are far more of them than there are of the bad ones.

Still, maybe we need teachers like Ms. Munroe to take one for the team so that people start to think about what being a teacher is actually like. In her new blog, she writes:

“While I never in a million years would have guessed that this many people would ever see my words, and I didn’t even intend them to, I stand by what I wrote and think it’s good that people are aware now. There are serious problems with our education system today–with the way that schools and school districts and students and parents take teachers who enter the education field full of life and hope and a desire to change the world and positively impact kids, and beat the life out of them and villanize them and blame them for everything–and those need to be brought to light. If this ‘scandal’ opens the door for that conversation, so be it.”

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[1] As an aside, Ms. Munroe’s page on ratemyteachers has comments ranging from “No respect for students. Evidenced by her recent blog post scandal” to “Props for speaking her mind. Aren’t there more than our fair share of students here who feel and act a bit too entitled? Stop b****ing and start working with your teachers….”

[2] A comment from The Boyfriend made me wonder if we will ever see a TV drama about high school from the teachers’ point of view. Other than “Welcome Back, Kotter,” nothing is coming to mind….

I Dreamed I was in a Cult

And not one of the nice ones, either. Not one of the benign bother-you-at-the-airport cults [1] or the ones that quietly kill themselves when something weird shows up in the sky or that encourage you to buy Amway products.

No, this was a full-on Secret Murder Cult, with robes and a huge Aztec staircase and all that you could ask for in an evil, quasi-religious force. I don’t remember how I got wrapped up in it, as I am not usually prone to murder, but here’s how it worked: the facilities were billed as a retreat for the sick and dying, who would come and stay for a few days, get the whole shebang in terms of rituals and invocations, and eventually get brought to the top of this long, long staircase wherein they would be murdered. Men, women, children – everyone went under the knife eventually. And, of course, I helped.

Maybe it was because everyone seemed so sick and miserable that I thought, “Well, they’re going to die anyway, so as long as their deaths serve our nefarious purposes I suppose that’s all right. If I was sure what our nefarious purposes were….” Looking back on it, one thing I find interesting was the mixture of religious iconography that my brain threw together. The heads of the cult wore robes that resembled the brown robes of the Franciscans, but during ceremonial duties also wore the traditional Arab keffiyeh and spoke Hebrew. [2] The facilities had a distinctly Catholic look to them, except for the huge stone pyramid out back with the blood gutters. Not a traditional aspect of Catholic architecture, unless I missed something in CCD class.

The last group to come through before my cat woke me up [3] was from Africa. Their party consisted of a few morbidly obese, terminally ill, and fantastically rich people and their families. It was a big group, and I remember thinking, “This isn’t going to work.” We couldn’t let any of them live, after all. That would undermine the “secret” part of our secret murder cult.

And while I tried to work out the logistics of disposing of forty or fifty people, it started to bother me on a more moral level. The few sick people looked up at me when I passed with great hope, as though they really thought we were going to help them. Their families were excited by the prospect of a cure, in some cases actually dancing and talking about how much better their loved ones would be. Which is when it started to dawn on me that maybe – just maybe – mass murder was wrong.

But how to get out of it? I had helped, after all. If I went to the head of the cult and told him I was having doubts, I knew he would either be able to sweet-talk or threaten me into staying. I knew that if I ran under cover of darkness to the police, I would be just as indictable as everyone else, and likely spend the rest of my life in prison. I was still searching for a way out when my cat gently clawed me awake and I thought, “I dreamed I was in a cult….”

Of course, one would be tempted to wonder what this says about me, that my dream-self would have to eventually work his way to the conclusion that murdering people who had come to you for help is wrong. Damned if I know what it means, other than that my brain has too much time on its hands.

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[1] Do they still do that? I imagine Homeland Security would probably take a dim view to that in this day and age.

[2] Or at least what my brain thinks Hebrew sounds like.

[3] With his usual unerring accuracy at 5:00 AM. On my day off. Bastard.

My Boyfriend Thinks I’m Weird

This should come as no surprise to anyone, really.

I was making dinner and had Real Time with Bill Maher playing on my phone. I had really wanted to hear this episode, because while I don’t quite see eye-to-eye with Maher, I do occasionally find his show entertaining, and this week he had on Neil deGrasse Tyson as his special guest. I have long been a fan of Tyson, and I always enjoy seeing him on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report and his own show, NOVA Science Now. I got to the great moment where he threw a wobbly over how the financial crisis might have been avoided if the nation made teaching math and science – especially math – a priority, and I turned to The Boyfriend and said, “He is my favorite astronomer!” [1]

And he gave me a Look. It’s the look that said, “Your favorite what? What kind of person has a favorite astronomer?” He was too polite to put it in those words, but I know a Look when I see one.

I tried my best to explain why I was so excited about the work he was doing, the way he was doing his best to expose the wonders of science and scientific education to the public, and how happy I was that there was someone taking up the job that Carl Sagan left when he died. I tried to explain why I thought it was so incredibly fantastic that right now we have verifiable evidence of planets circling other stars – thousands of them! And some small percent of those planets might harbor life, if not intelligence. I wanted to go on and on about the benefits that science funding brings to a population, why it’s important to teach critical thinking to students, why one half of one percent of the federal budget is WAY too little to spend on NASA, and why people should get excited about the progress we’re making in understanding the universe.

NORM!!

I wanted to figure out why it is that Justin Beiber is the most searched-for person on Google, while there are probably not one in ten people reading this who have ever Googled Norman Borlaug, much less know who he is. [2] Granted, Bieber has better hair, but still…. This is a man whose research effectively saved a billion people from starvation, who revolutionized the way humanity grows food and eats, and who has won more and better prizes than that Bieber boy – or any of us – could ever dream of.

Anyway, I long for the day that people can talk about their favorite scientists without getting a Look. Until then, I suppose I’ll just have to pretend that Lady GaGa and Ke$ha [3] are relevant, just to pass for normal. But secretly, I’ll be admiring the big-brained types from afar.

Oh, Richard Feynman, you’re such a scamp….

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[1] Running neck-and-neck with Phil Plait. Sometimes it’s so hard to choose.

[2] Assuming there are more than ten people reading this…

[3] Who?