Friday, February 16, 2007

school days: on power, policy, littering and self-expression


The foster child is having tomorrow off – he has a 'take home', one of his teachers says. There have been a few niggly things, and so he has been given this time out before things escalate. The teacher suggested that the heat wouldn't have helped matters. He certainly has difficulty restraining himself, something I was a bit better at when I was his age – though I should admit I was altogether too reserved. I'm inclined to think him much misunderstood, his loudness seeming more aggressive than it is. His gangly height also makes him stand out. The issue was tackled, I think a little clumsily, by the Anglicare worker during the weekly review meeting earlier tonight, and the boy stormed out of the room. Everybody says he's greatly improved since a year ago – otherwise, they say he would never have been placed with me. I think it's fair to say I have a healthy disrespect for authority, and I'm not sure that anyone, including teachers, should command a priori respect, simply by virtue of their status. They have to earn respect like anyone else. The boy clearly feels this too, though he hasn't the power to articulate it as yet. He refused to pick up a piece of paper after being directed to do so by a teacher. His argument was that he wasn't responsible for putting the piece of paper there, so he shouldn't have to pick it up. The Anglicare rep and I both attacked the self-centredness of this argument, which he acknowledged by changing tack: that particular teacher, whom he couldn't stand, was always picking on him in this way….

When I think about this – and it takes me back to my own schooldays – the request by a teacher to a student to pick up a piece of paper is, or can be, something that carries enormously complex hidden implications. Did the teacher ask the question in a tone of disdain? Did he ask it in response to a disdainful look from the boy? Did he ask politely, timidly, angrily or contemptuously? Was the boy acting up at the time, regaling his mates with his masturbation technique or his impersonations of various teachers? Was the teacher trying to humble the boy or was he simply concerned with the untidiness of the yard? How much did this involve a battle of wills? Was the boy being set up to fail? Was the ulterior motive to break him in like some wild, clumsy but altogether too arrogant animal? Did the teacher fix him with a long stare, or did he randomly select him? What's the history between these two individuals? The answers to these questions are essential to determining the justice or injustice of the case, but considering the number of such fleeting, fraught instances, we hardly have time to disentangle each one, apportioning praise here and blame there.

I just hope that those teachers responsible for the big decisions re his attending or not attending this school will recognize and accept that he isn't going to become a straightforward respecter of their authority, he isn't going to be obedient and well-behaved. Of course there are other issues, such as influence and disruption. If he's more loud and disruptive than other kids, why should he be treated with greater leniency? If he is treated with more leniency, wouldn't that encourage other kids to disrupt? He has expressed a general refusal to pick up papers [not dropped by himself], and this principle on which he stands might influence others to take a similar stand. So, imagine that, during a general 'picking up papers' session [they do actually happen] none of the students comply. This is a problem since the papers in the yard were all dropped by students.

It's more or less a given that those students who litter wouldn't own up to it. It would therefore be an impossible task to get the students who actually did the littering to pick up after themselves. What then if, rather than forcing students, most of whom are innocent of littering, to pick up the papers, the teachers simply picked up the papers, or got cleaners to do it? Quite likely if they saw teachers doing this they'd consider it a great lark, and an outbreak of littering would occur. If they saw cleaners picking up papers, they'd feel they could litter with impunity, and the littering level would rise, albeit more slowly.

What if the teachers tried this approach: they would continue to employ cleaners for the littering, but would emphasize to the students the undesirability of littering, and would punish individuals actually caught in the act.

This would seem to be a reasonable approach: it's essentially the approach adopted by the wider community. I suspect, though, that it doesn't work so well in schools, otherwise it would be adopted by them [but there's also the consideration that kids provide free labor compared to cleaners – mixing school budgetary considerations with issues of morality can be a tricky business, not necessarily beyond the understanding of the most alert students]. Kids tend to be more impulsive, less fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

So, the currently adopted approach of getting some proportion of the 1400 kids at the school to pick up papers dropped by some other proportion of the 1400 kids, seems reasonable considering the problems posed by alternative approaches. Those who refuse on principle to comply need to be able to support that principle and put up an argument for a more appropriate approach. Economic considerations should be part of the overall argument.

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