The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

by Tina Blue
June 10, 2003

          This past year I supplemented my woefully inadequate salary as an adjunct faculty member at a state university by substitute teaching in the elementary schools in the local school district.

          I have learned many things from my experience as a substitute teacher, most of them not good.

          I assumed I would find teaching at the elementary level to be relatively easy.  After all, I ran a home daycare for 18 years, so I had a lot of experience working with groups of children ranging from just a couple of months old right up to junior high age.

          Also, after 31 years of teaching college students, and 15 years of tutoring students of all ages with learning disabilities, I had the teaching part down pat, too--or so I thought.

          What I hadn't counted on, though, was the degree to which badly behaved grade school students in our public schools have been allowed to take over the classroom, and the way the teacher's authority has been undermined by litigious parents and well-meaning but brainless social tinkerers.

          In my daycare, I always had in mind what the children were learning from our activities, but I did not have specific lesson plans that had to be followed, or specific subject content that they had to master.

          That was a big difference. In the classroom, there was always a specific amount of clearly defined subject work that had to be completed, often within very precisely delineated blocks of time.  That meant that if one or more students deliberately disrupted or delayed the lesson, it was difficult to accomplish everything on time.

          And it was pretty much guaranteed that some students would want to undermine the lesson plan.  After all, these were grade school students.  Even when I was in grade school back in the 1950s, there were those who would disrupt the forward movement of the class if they could.

          But back then such students were easily brought under control by the teacher, who had virtually unquestioned authority in the classroom.  And that authority was backed up by school administrators and, most important, by the parents of the students in the classroom.

          Even as recently as, say, the 1980s, if a teacher or principal threatened to inform a student's  parents of his bad behavior, that student would usually straighten up pretty quickly, rather than face whatever punishment his parents would mete out for his unruly behavior in school.

          But these days, if a teacher tries to correct or control a student's outrageous behavior, that student is likely to threaten to tell his parents, who would then sue the teacher, the principal, the school board, and anyone else associated with the school. 

          No matter how meritless such a suit might be, the school's administrators always give in, simply because it is so expensive and time-consuming to defend against a lawsuit brought by an irate parent, especially when there is no guarantee of winning the court case, even if the school is in the right.

          And most of the really disruptive students have been labeled as LD (learning disabled), which means that they have an IEP (Individual Educational Plan).  That means that any attempt to sanction the child for misbehavior can be legally blocked because he has a "disability."

          Now, I have tutored LD students of all ages for many years, and I know quite a lot about LDs and about what it takes to get around them and to learn in spite of them.  But the only real learning disability I was seeing in these kids in the grade school classrooms was their refusal to settle down and pay attention or to do anything at all related to learning. 

          And their learning disability was "contagious," because they effectively prevented all of the other students from learning much, either.

          One reason I quit my daycare in 1999 was that as the years passed children were coming into daycare less and less socialized, and their parents were incredibly unwilling to accept any responsibility at all for working to teach their children proper behavior.

          Well, I saw the same thing in the schools, only worse.

          Students would simply ignore instructions and do whatever they liked, whenever they liked.  They would get up out of their seats, talk to whomever they pleased, and simply refuse to open a book or put pencil to paper to work on an assignment. And from talking to the teachers, I learned that this was normal behavior, not simply the way they acted around substitute teachers.

          Some were openly mocking and defiant.

          In one second/third-grade mixed classroom, one 7-year-old boy, whom I will call Tyler, got so out of control on both occasions when I subbed in that class that I had to call someone from the office to remove him from the classroom!  He ran around the room shouting, jumping off chairs, pushing other children, and knocking their pencils and papers off the tables.  And this outrageous behavior began the very minute he entered the classroom.  It was not the result of anything I said or did, because I had not had time to say or  do anything before he began to misbehave.

          When I tried to talk to Tyler, he sneeringly repeated everything I said.  And it was obvious from the way he did so that it was standard procedure for him, not just a trick he was trotting out for the benefit of the substitute.  When I called the office to remove him from the classroom, the boy shouted out, "I need a chill pill!"

          Tyler was the worst, but he was not by any means the only problem child in that classroom. 

          Another boy, whom I will call Robert, played the whole time he was supposed to be working, and as he played he made very loud sounds, like airplanes taking off, cars squealing as they pulled out at top speed, and explosions.

          Then there was the little girl who simply would not stay in her seat, no matter how often she was corrected for getting up and bothering other students as they tried to work.

          That's the other thing.  In every class there were always a few students who were trying very hard to learn what was being taught, but their attempts to work were constantly undermined by the bad behavior of their classmates.

          When my own two children were in grade school during the 1980s, I did volunteer teaching once or twice a week in both of their classrooms.  At the time, I had no trouble handling the children or completing the lesson plan the teacher had devised for me.  Even that recently the children accepted the authority of the adult teaching the learning center they were at, and no one was physically out of control.

          But if my children were of school age now, there is no way I would allow them to attend a public school.  No way.

          I would home school them.  Too little learning takes place in the public schools these days, and it isn't the fault of the teachers, who struggle heroically against impossible odds and who deserve to be paid double or triple the salaries they are currently receiving.  If nothing else, they should get extra combat pay!

          Besides the fact that the serious students are cheated of an education by the students who are allowed to take control of the classroom, all of the students are also learning that bad behavior and disregard of authority is rewarded, and that good behavior and compliance with rules and requirements are for chumps.

          Over the past several years I have noticed that many of my college students are less mature, less competent, and less well-behaved than students I have taught in the past. 

          Until about eight years ago, I never had students actually misbehave in one of my college classes. I remember how astonished I was when it first started happening, especially when it turned out to be not just one or two students on one occasion, and not just (as it initially was) student athletes, but even non-athletes--and on several occasions over the course of several semesters.

          These were college students, but they were behaving like rambunctious third-graders.

          But after my experience in the public grade schools this past year, I now know where those badly behaved college students are coming from.  I don't doubt that when Tyler, Robert, and others like them reach college age, they will still be acting up and sneering when the teacher tries to correct their bad behavior.

          And of course their foolish parents will still be backing them up with threats of lawsuits if anyone dares to say anything negative to their precious little darlings. 

          Let me give you an example of the way parents deny their child's bad behavior and blame the schools for whatever the child does.

          In one of our city's elementary schools, a fourth-grader went out of control and began throwing chairs around the room.  (These days teachers actually have to have an evacuation plan for getting children out of the room if one of their classmates starts throwing furniture or otherwise endangering them.)

          After the children had been evacuated, the teacher and the principal tried to remove the boy from the classroom.  He struggled and kicked so hard that he broke the principal's wrist!

          They had to call the police to subdue the child, but even the presence of the police did nothing to make the boy reconsider his behavior.  Finally, the only way the police could control him without causing him harm was to handcuff him.

          A nine-year-old boy!

          His mother was outraged.  She told the local newspaper that it was all the fault of the teacher and the principal.  Her child was not violent, she insisted, and if they had used the Mandt hold (which is the hold used for controlling violent mental patients!), he wouldn't have been able to break the principal's wrist.

          But why did she even know the name of that hold?  I'm pretty well-read, but I had never heard of it before reading the article in which she mentioned it, and no one I have asked since then has heard of it, either, except for my daughter--who had a part-time job as an aide for adult mental patients for nearly a year. 

          Why would that mother know about that hold if her son is not violent?

          And if this kid is responding to authority--teachers, principals, cops--this way at the age of nine, what will he be doing (and his mother excusing, of course, and blaming on others) when he is 15 or 16?

          If you really want to know why students learn so little in our public schools these days, why don't you spend some time in the classrooms of your local grade school? I guarantee you will be appalled.

          I didn't work in the junior high or high schools, so I can't say what goes on there.  But I would be very surprised if it is much better than what goes on in the elementary classrooms. 

          After all, grade school is where junior high and high school students come from.

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