Blackboard Jungle, Part 3: Rebels Without a Cause?

Whenever an expert comes forward to explain the reasons for the failing education system to a greater public, I get to hear the same boring catch phrases. Do you never get tired of your dull sermon? Or don’t you bother to listen to your own words anymore? Do you discuss the issue merely out of a defence reflex, without consideration for the opinion of any concerned party outside your profession?

There are not enough teachers. A remarkable number of those working in the business are on the brink of, still suffering, or already trying to recover from burn out. Teachers have to spend too many hours in the classroom and (therefore) lack recreation time. Pupils are increasingly unruly, violent, and disrespectful — and so are these kids’ parents, of late.

Why exactly would any of this be surprising?

Actually, I tend to agree with the average complainant — but the majority of teachers is not going to like my reasoning.

The Subject that Matters

There are not enough teachers, but there are too many “teachers”. That is to say, entrants who somehow managed to pass exams and were then unleashed upon unsuspecting pupils. Yet a university diploma in mathematics (to name but one of many faculties), even summa cum laude, does not make an accomplished maths teacher.

I used to know a middle school maths teacher who was not able to find an approach to a problem the eleven–year–old son of a teammate had brought home from school.

I used to live with an Irish middle school teacher who, as a native speaker, barely managed to keep her head above water in her Gaelic language class of teenagers.

I met quite a number of high school history teachers who had never heard of certain historical events of the last century — and never quite comprehended the mutual influence or consequences of those they actually knew had taken place.

I met a 17–year–old who, much to his teacher’s chagrin, had no idea who Bertha von Suttner was, and several of his peers who were not able to tell genuine, official emergency telephone numbers from fake numbers invented for popular TV drama series.

Still surprised that pupils (and their parents) are prone to lose their temper? Or that a growing number of teachers are having nervous breakdowns? Anyone?

Teaching Is a Profession in Its own Right

People, seriously! You don’t need more teachers, more money, or more days off. None of these is the main cause of your problems — and neither are a growing number of foreign speakers in the classroom or the indisputable fact that some parents are ideological idiots, chauvinists, racists, or know–it–alls.

What you really need is a serious teachers’ training (including age–appropriate communication and sound teaching tactics) rather than a university diploma in this or that subject (other than teaching competency).

No advanced studies will help you get away with knowledge gaps you failed to bridge since your own school days. Don’t expect your assumed positional authority to compensate for your lack of genuine personal authority (which is, among other aspects, based on pertinent knowledge).

It is not my intention to belittle any one teacher’s efforts, but your job is to convey knowledge you once acquired at the same level of education in a course reasonably similar to the lessons you are teaching these days. A teacher is a teacher, not a mathematician, linguist, historian, artist, etc.

Being a teacher is a profession in its own right, not a “side effect” of a real profession or a half–day job supposed to pay the bills.

Proper Time Management Is Essential

And this brings us to your (and your pupils’) next problem. I have yet to meet a teacher whose career choice was not (secretly or even openly) influenced by the prospect of an obscene amount of school–free days in a year.

Well done. Congratulations for successfully suppressing the memory of the most important factor causing learning stress during your own education: time pressure.

Problem: Explain the practical benefit of closing schools for a week in early February after less than a month since Christmas break.

Note: Don’t even try to explain it with the cold weather. The days when pupils had to bring pieces of coal or logs of wood from home to fuel the oven in the classroom are long gone.

With one fifth of the year falling victim to all sorts of “holidays”, it is literally impossible to work through each year’s textbook at a reasonable pace.

Problem: Explain the practical benefit of issuing a curriculum that’s obviously not matching the timetable.

Note: Don’t even try to explain it with the relative irrelevance of some of the content. This justification would inevitably raise the question why this content ever came to be part of the syllabus.

Yet the “logical consequence” is not to reasonably reduce the number of off days, and to structure the school year more efficiently, but to “shred” — depending on the subject — somewhere between one third and one half of all textbooks each year, and merely skim some of the rest — irrespective of whether or not the omitted portion might prove relevant to individual pupils in the future.

It’s the Structure, Stupid

I honestly cannot remember a single school year (after primary school) that saw a regular timetable issued before the end of September. Yet I do remember years with the school management still struggling to establish when, where, and by whom any one class was to be taught certain subjects in mid–October.

Problem: Explain what keeps a headmaster or school administrator from developing a regular timetable during summer break or adapting an already developed timetable.

Note: Don’t even try to explain it with the complexity of the matter. There are industries where considerably more complex plans are developed by staff less educated and paid, in less time.

Considering that the number of classes, teachers, and pupils per school are relatively stable, and the curriculum is established by federal education laws rather than being a matter of annual negotiations on district level, it is difficult to see why another four to six weeks are wasted each winter semester on administrative details until regular operations run smoothly.

Given that textbooks and other school materials — based on mentioned education programme — are produced years in advance, there is no obvious reason for their acquisition having to be a last–minute venture (or rather being delayed until after the semester had already commenced), each year around.

It may or may not be irrelevant whether a school year starts with a winter or summer semester. What would matter, in any case, were a sound routine and enough time for pupils to prepare for tasks ahead, and enough time to learn their lessons.

With schools closed between Christmas and Epiphany (ending the winter semester) and all of July (ending the summer semester), they’d not only have more time to study, but also approximately the same time off as their parents. This would not only prepare them for the future, but also relieve many a parent from having to find day care for their offspring during school holidays.

Well, this would also mean that teachers had only around thirty (working) days of vacation each year. Tough luck. Then either structure your day like every working parent (that is to say, more efficiently), or convince your authorities to employ qualified teachers who run your school’s “back office” (preparing and correcting exam papers, checking homework, providing feedback, and such). That’s how professional managers would address such issues.

Oh, Well. That Parent … Again

Whoever cares to listen to parents’ opinions on the state of the matter, that is their offspring’s eduction, is bound to be exposed to similarly dull responses.

It is always the own child that is disadvantaged by certain teachers (that is, being either sidelined or picked on, even harassed), kept from developing a wholesome personality, and unduly challenged. Oh, and don’t get them started about “the other brats” in their child’s class (not to mention the many children of immigrants who are allowed to establish their own subculture — to the own kid’s disadvantage, of course) …

Again, why exactly would any of this be surprising?

It may be a natural impulse that parents always believe their own kid’s virtue and values to be above the rest of the lot. Yet, more often than not, this impulse shows all the characteristics of a defence tactic to stifle accusations of poor rearing in the bud.

Yes, your child is most certainly unique (simply because we all are). Yet to become a decent member of society one fine day, it has to know, understand, and accept the ropes of group dynamics from an early age.

It is not the teacher’s failure that some kids are “attention whores”, “bloody jerks”, or “bullies” who threaten peace and civility in the classroom; and neither is it, in most cases, the individual child’s fault. It’s merely the result of the parents’ failure to adapt their offspring to individual environments.

Don’t you give us your ridiculous “cultural background” excuse. There is only one known, rather small tribe that has no concept of “right or wrong”, of “good and evil” at all. If you are reading these lines, it is safe to assume that you are not part of this culture — and neither is anyone you know in person.

Old Dogs and New Tricks

In many respects, raising children is not so different from training dogs. Both are basically pack animals (much more so than any one of them is prepared to concede), driven by instinct rather than prudence and mindful of their own benefit.

They need to learn that respect has to be earned. Being “cute and adorable” is not a life concept as such (unless you insist on raising a generation of “‘It’ Girls and Boys”).

They need to learn that every pack has a leader: At home, that’s the head of the family. At school, that’s the teacher.

This leader has not only the right (by virtue of both his personality and position) but also a responsibility to maintain peace and civility within the respective group. That’s what develops mutual trust (between leader and group as well as among the members of the group) and provides room to develop reasonable self–esteem and a sound self–concept.

They have to be kept physically and mentally busy, but they must not be overwhelmed (by their tasks or environment). You won’t find a happy dog (or child) that picks a serious fight within the own pack — or tries to bite the alpha dog.

Please pardon the metaphor, but we all know the saying that old dogs do not learn new tricks. A poorly socialised six–year–old child is no different to an old dog that’s never learned “pack rules”.

If one primary school teacher is supposed to do for thirty rascals in four years what thirty parents failed to do for one rascal in six years, there won’t be much time left to teach (or learn) something else.