A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I am not a teacher. I haven’t taken a single class on education, let alone made it through the testing and observation required to be a public school teacher. I am an underemployed BA-clutching young woman who paid the bills working as a substitute teacher in Pittsburgh when I couldn’t take another day at my call center job.
People who spend enough time with children can attest to our young’s ability to brighten a rainy day, to say something that makes you laugh out loud every time you remember it, to give you hope for the future. This isn’t about those moments.
Every day as a substitute teacher was an exercise in overcoming my aversion to things like crowds, loud noises, and disrespect. I can proudly say that I have not hidden in a bathroom between classes since my first day teaching in the city, but the way students as young as five years old interacted with me and their teachers still brings my blood to a gentle simmer.
One day I was dismayed by a teacher’s half-hearted response to her students’ swearing at her, and then I spent an hour alone with them. Suffice it to say my arsenal of school-inappropriate vocabulary reached a new level. When I thought back on how the teacher had interacted with these students, I realized she wasn’t coddling them or lacking disciplinary will; she had come to terms with the fact that nothing she said or did would change their utter lack of respect for her and for education as an institution.
To be fair, that was a “therapeutic classroom” for students who needed to be separated from the majority of their classmates, and there was always supposed to be a a therapist in the classroom. The therapist had a meeting when I was sent up.
But less extreme displays of disrespect were omnipresent in every school, in every neighborhood. Once, the same student who refused to come into my classroom (because she didn’t want to listen to me) subsequently refused to leave the classroom, because she didn’t want to listen to me. I’ve had students inform me that they will not turn in the required class work because they “don’t hand in work to subs.” In the middle of a grammar lesson, a fifth grade girl raised her hand to ask if I was done yet.
I usually convinced myself to brush off the insults with an internal ‘Whatever, they’re only hurting themselves with that attitude,” or “I know it’s not me – they treat all their substitutes like this.”
But that signals something even scarier to me: no matter who is in my position, that person will not be allowed to succeed. And what’s the point of putting students and teachers in the same room if either one of them refuses to participate?
I wasn’t there, but I would bet that our earliest ancestors had to do things they didn’t want to do sometimes. I grew up with the understanding that this was part of being human. Not so to many of the students I encountered as a substitute teacher. If I had a quarter for every time a student responded to the day’s assignment with “but I don’t want to,” I could buy dozens of those Starbucks drinks your average public school teacher can’t afford.
At first I thought they were just being facetious. Sure, there are other activities you would find more enjoyable than practicing your reading fluidity! And, having acknowledged that, we can move on and practice your reading fluidity, right? Wrong. “I don’t wanna.”
I thought we already went over this. I have acknowledged that this is not your activity of choice, you have complained, so why can’t we move on and do it?
Eventually I came to the realization that to many children, “I don’t want to” also means “I don’t have to.” This was news to me, and it instilled in me a new fear of what the next generation will do with this world.
Here is where I want to offer the grand solution. But this is where my earlier caveat comes in: I was an observer and a stand-in, not someone who spent day in and day out becoming a part of students’ lives, learning where they came from and what they went home to. I observed an outcome; I did not diagnose a root problem.
Students aren’t born entitled and disrespectful, but they sure learn it early. Having worked in urban and suburban districts, with students from a wide range of socio-economic and racial backgrounds, I can at least say with certainty that race, class, and location are not the determinants of these behaviors. Beyond that, all I have are hypotheses and questions for those who play a more active role in our children’s lives.
Are children learning to disrespect their parents and other adults from the TV shows that portray young main characters as knowing better than all of the adults in the show?
Are parents and guardians too busy, uninterested, or preoccupied to uphold a consistent set of rules? Or worse, are they afraid that their children won’t love them as much if they do?
Do teachers have inadequate tools to engage with today’s students and draw them into learning, not for tests that mean nothing to them or for a future that they don’t see for themselves, but for the people they want to become?
These few questions barely scratch the surface of what we need to consider as our younger generations come of age, but we need to start scratching. Our children deserve it, even if they don’t like it.
— by Kayleigh Metviner
This piece was written for Vox Populi.