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National Review
National Review
21 Oct 2023
Daniel Buck

NextImg:We’re Making Teaching Miserable for Teachers

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE {G} avin Newsom just signed a bill that bans the use of suspensions for willful defiance — transgressions such as talking back to a teacher or breaking dress code — across schools in California. While schools can still employ punitive discipline for severe actions such as violence or drug possessions, kids can now cuss out their teacher with impunity.

I have seen the consequences of similar policies firsthand. Last year, a student during class mocked my colleague, who pleaded for assistance from the office; my administration demurred. Any teacher worth their salt can tell you exactly what this situation communicates to every student in that room: Kids can do whatever they want, and Mr. So-and-So doesn’t deserve their respect.

In the days that followed, my students barreled into my room, laughing about the chaos that they experienced (or caused) in math that day. That Friday, Mr. So-and-So quit. For the rest of the year, a revolving door of substitutes taught eighth-grade math. In coddling a few misbehaving students early on, my administration damned an entire grade. School closures aren’t the only policies that cause learning loss.

Such policies aren’t relegated to a poorly managed school in my city of Milwaukee or the state of California, either. Across the country, schools have stripped teachers of authority in the classroom.

A popular grading policy requires that teachers reward students 50 percent, even if they don’t complete a single question or even begin an assignment. Students can rack up tardies in the double digits without facing a consequence. Students should get unlimited retakes. Teachers can’t even leave critical feedback on essays without accusations of oppression and racism. Other jurisdictions such as New York City and the entire state of Illinois have also passed legislation to limit or ban the use of suspensions for disruptive behavior.

Policy-makers, of course, think that they are being nice, well-meaning, understanding of students’ feelings, fair, and equitable in each of these policies. In reality, they are taping the mouths of teachers, tying their hands, slapping a dunce cap on their heads, and asking them to maintain order. The text of the California bill gestures in the direction of racial equity, but it’s really a manifestation of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.”

Teachers cannot teach in these conditions, and so students cannot and will not learn. In fact, one representative survey from the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools found that student behavior has surpassed pay as the primary concern of teachers.

For the first time in my career last year, I found that I had to explain to my administration and a parent why I gave a student a poor grade. Her own behavior or proclivity for sleeping during class, of course, could not have been a cause.

At the root of these asinine policy changes is the idea that teacher authority is inherently oppressive. The teacher-student relationship directly parallels the oppressor-oppressed dichotomy of Marx. Understood so, anything that limits a child — basic rules and consequences, for example — is inherently hegemonic and so oppressive. Even a teacher’s authority as an expert in science or history becomes irrelevant as students should only learn what immediately interests them.

But much like we cannot destroy energy, only change its form, we cannot rid the school of authority; we can only change who wields that authority and to what end.

In the 1950s, Hannah Arendt predicted in her incomparable essay “The Crisis in Education” that the eradication of adult authority in a school will not result in some utopian sharing of power for teachers and students as they co-create some warm and fuzzy learning experience. Rather, humans crave order and predictability, and so in the absence of adult-imposed order, the stronger students overpower the weaker students. She writes:

As for the child in the group, he is of course rather worse off than before. . . . By being emancipated from the authority of adults the child has not been freed but has been subjected to a much more terrifying and truly tyrannical authority, the tyranny of the majority.

It’s unfair to blame this erasure of teacher authority entirely on schools of education and their crackpot theorists. Americans naturally bristle at any limits on individual expression and question any traditional authority or old traditions.

And we should, of course, remain skeptical of political authority, but in regards to adult-child relationships, order, discipline, and structure are not dirty words. They are essential elements to any well-run classroom and necessary for the healthy development of any child. It’s not oppressive to provide my own daughter a timeout or spanking if she continues to run into the street. That imposition of a small consequence saves her from something far worse.

Students intuitively understand this. Every year, they came into my classroom complaining about chaos elsewhere. At first, they disliked my requirement for silence during work time, but eventually fell silent without me needing to ask and even shushed each other. A few thanked me every year for that protected space in their otherwise chaotic days.

For years, American schools have trended toward a near-complete erasure of teacher authority. Now, Gavin Newsom has made that erasure complete. Students no longer need to give their teachers the common courtesy of respectful language or following basic rules. What could go wrong?