I teach high school history and law full time. I have for 20 years. Over that time we (teachers) have seen many changes.  Laying aside the various trends and fads that pedagogy seems to produce there are some constants. One of them is that teenage...

What the Kids Know

I teach high school history and law full time. I have for 20 years. Over that time we (teachers) have seen many changes.  Laying aside the various trends and fads that pedagogy seems to produce there are some constants. One of them is that teenagers are going to screw up. They are going to do it accidentally, experimentally and or deliberately. At that point we (those in, for the lack of a better word, authority) are required to do something about it.

Any one with a sense of self awareness realizes that our peer group behaved in the same way when we were younger. We did it too. But we also know that does not mean that we should not react to the mistakes they make. They need to be called on what they do as we did. Appropriate responses vary over time. Nobody gets the strap any more and nobody wants to strap anyone. But a firm response is part of the civilizing process that is one of the primary functions of publicly funded education systems. The more serious the screw up, the more serious the response. This is logical. I would add at this point that I am a firm believer in the applicability of the general concept behind the Broken Windows Theory. Little things, in the teen experience like cutting a class or wearing a hat in school,  must be addressed quickly and efficiently or they will turn into bigger problems like bullying, fighting, theft or outright defiance.

I have worked for with many different types of administrators, who are ultimately responsible for discipline in the school. All, I can say without reservation, truly liked teenagers and wanted the best for them. I am not exaggerating when I write this. That being said some were more effective than others.  It has been my experience that disciplining students is an unpleasant task. I have done it. Don`t like it. I will do it though because I realize that is part of my job description. My history with students has been relentlessly positive with only a few exceptions. I have been lucky. But I do know that a good disciplinarian must make the experience of the student being corrected worse than his or hers. They must be able to become the person the students, no matter how hardened, must not want to see in that role. A heavyweight so to speak. The person who personifies this model in my mind was a very tough woman. Even the most ‘experienced’ teenagers wanted no part of her one on one. And she was relentless in maintaining the rules we had for the students.  That is hard work, and not for everyone: to like and respect teenagers, but make them understand there are limits to their behaviour. I believe this approach sets the best tone in a work place crowded with boisterous, nervous, sleep deprived, self absorbed, over worked and often over privileged teenagers.

One thing has changed over the 20 years I have taught. This I am sure of. It is that some parents, and subsequently, their teen aged children, have come to view this necessary disciplinary process as something to be resented, resisted and endlessly argued. That is new. We could blame Trudeau and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for this. It is a truism that we are becoming increasingly American in our litigiousness. And the parents bring lawyers into it, oh yes they do. The students, well some of them anyway,  have internalized this attitude. Surly responses to requests to follow clearly prescribed rules of conduct are on the increase. I often explain to the students that if they are in the wrong, they lose the right to bargain or complain. (They, again in my experience and not surprisingly, understand.) In more serious cases, parents are even more vociferous in defending their child. We have had parents who argued about the level of drunkenness their offspring had attained at the dance, as if that made any difference. Yes, I know we drank too and it t’was ever thus, but schools back in the day did not lose their admin teams for days debating with parents over the suspensions that were rightly imposed. This is new and it is not good.

I would say this: If school administrations are not firm in their rejection of the litigation model, if teachers and administrators do not realize the teenagers they work with need disciplining to develop as citizens and people, and if a certain group of parents do not come to realize the damage they are doing to their child and the system, we are in trouble. And even worse, the kids know it.

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