Surviving the Blackboard Jungle

Classrooms have become a battleground, and teachers' only weapon is to go on strike-inside the classroom.


I am not a researcher in the field of education. My leisure time is spent researching the field I teach. I do not cite educational studies. I cite my life—20-odd years of exhausting struggle in the junior high school classroom. I want to advise the young college student of the price to be paid, and I want to defend myself and my colleagues from the attacks, both implicit and explicit, coming from all fronts, according to which we teachers are largely to blame for the miserable state of education today. I want to set the record straight.

The debilitation in education springs from two interrelated problems. The first is the main context of education—that it is public, not private; and the second is the monstrous way children behave in the classroom. Nobody is ever going to solve any other problem in education until these two are worked out. No amount of research, no amount of money poured into the field, will do any good until society recognizes that these problems are fundamental and does something about them. As only one writer/teacher, I can do very little about changing the politics of public education, but I can apprise people of the proportions and the destructiveness of the second.

These two problems are interrelated because the public nature of education is one of the main reasons why children don't behave. Johnny can't read because he won't sit still, shut up, and listen to the teacher telling him how. Furthermore, under public education there is no way to make him.

Based on my 23 years of teaching experience, I would say that in suburban schools 50 percent of the children are so badly behaved and to such an extent that they don't belong in school. Another 5 percent would be redeemable with expulsion, 20 percent would respond to skillful disciplining, and only 5 percent are properly behaved. In the city ghetto schools, the percentage of delinquency is much higher.

Teaching is a high-risk, hazardous occupation. In New York City, a teacher is expected to break up five or six violent fights every day in his or her area alone, yet the children involved are allowed to continue coming to school. If a teacher, in a desperate attempt to "do something" about it, tells the press about the extent of the crimes inside a school, he or she is summarily disciplined by being fired; or worse, she has her schedule changed and finds herself assigned to the most retarded and violent classes in the school.

The most tragic aspect of the New York school system is the fact that nobody really knows the extent of the rape, murder, arson, and most particularly the assault going on in the city schools. Each principal knows only what goes on in his school, and he is afraid to report more than a small fraction of it to the Board of Education because if he honestly reports all of it the board responds by asking him why he isn't doing his job. So the Board of Education has absolutely no accurate idea of the amount of crime in the schools.

Likewise, if a teacher reports too many incidents to the principal or assistant principal, she is asked what she did to precipitate the problem and is told that she is not doing her job. Again, since the city system is controlled by administrative vendettas, the principal may implement his revenge upon her by changing her assignment to the worst children in the school. (Schools are segregated by reading scores and emotional maladjustment. For example, 9-1 is a class in which all of the children have a ninth-grade reading score and are psychologically fairly well balanced; 9-2 has a lower average reading score and a few emotionally unbalanced children. When you get an assignment to teach 9-17, you are merely providing custodial care. It is not possible to teach these children anything. Moreover, walking into such a classroom is physically dangerous. If you get anything from 9-5 on down, you are dealing with animals.) A principal of such a school is lucky if he has any appreciation of the real amount of crime in his school.

There are other physical tolls the teacher has to pay. She is on her feet all day and can't even go to the bathroom, and she has to scream and yell. Try screaming all day and see what it does to you by 3:00 PM. An opera singer is exhausted by a three-hour performance—a teach is on stage for seven hours. No wonder we are drained at the end of the day.

But physical exhaustion is the least of the three prices we pay. The psychological pressure is the greatest. Recent research has shown that many (I would say all) teachers suffer from "combat neurosis"—they display the same symptoms that soldiers show as a result of an extended time on the battlefield; which means that we are actually, in fact, fighting an unrecognized war in the classroom. The suicide rate, the rate of nervous breakdowns among teachers, is the second highest of all occupations.

The children play a game in the classroom called "get teacher mad." And believe me, they get to you. A teacher says to a class: "Please open your books to page 16," and the following happens:

Sam: "Hey, get that Frank, open your books to page 16."

Frank: "That's right, Sammy, we got to open our books to page 16. Hey, Judy—you got your book open to page 16?"

Judy: "Why don't you shut up Frankie. Open your own book to page 16." (Raucous laughter)

Frank: "Naw, I don't wanna. Hey, George, wanna open your book to page 16?"

George: "Naw. I like page 17 better—it's got a nice picture on it. Hey, teach, can't we open our books to page 17 instead?" (Raucous laughter)

Mark: (Standing up and prancing like a woman) "Hey, boys and girls, would you pu-leeze open your books to page 16?" (Laughter)

Michael: (Throws his pencil or book at Mark) "Sit down, ass-hole, you ain't no teacher."

Mark: "But I got my book open to page 16—you ain't."

Michael: "Who says so, mother-fucker. I do so."

Mark: "You saying something 'bout my mother?" (Moves to get up)

Judy: "Hey, you guys, can't you do like the teacher said? Open your books to page 16. She said please didn't she?"

Bobby: "Yeah, that's right fellas, she said pu-leeze." (Starts dancing down the aisle) "Pu-leeze everybody, she said pu-leeze. Ain't that nice?" (Laughter)

John: "Girl."

Meyer: (Going up to the teacher) "Teacher, I ain't got no book. I left it in my locker, can I go get it?"

Tom: (Going up to the teacher) "I ain't got no book either, can I go too?"

Jeff: "Me too, O.K. teach? I'll help them find it." (Starts to move out of the door)

Mary: "Teach, can I go to the bathroom?"

Sally: "Yeah, me too."

And on and on and on. Remember there are 30 of these kids in the classroom, so the above sketch only scratches the surface as far as reproducing the pandemonium that ensues. If you yell "Quiet down" at them, they will only start yelling "Quiet down" at each other, and love it. They've succeeded at their little game. They've won. They got you mad.

What does it do to the teacher's esteem when half the students imitate every word she says and get away with it? (She can't send one-half of the class to the assistant principal.) What does it do to the teacher's self-respect when she is told "G.F.Y." 50 times a day, and there are no consequences for the child? (He remains in the classroom or is suspended for only three days at the most.) What do you usually do when someone tells you to G.F.Y.? You excommunicate him from your life. But you can't in the context of a public school. What does this do to a person's image of himself, to his or her deeper personal identity? What is the psychological cost of being forced to repress this anger? What is the moral cost?

Public schools are demoralizing. The altruistic premise of the Judeo-Christian ethic that everybody can be taught or that everybody can be cured is the basic premise of every public school system and is complete nonsense. Students and teachers alike are demoralized by the public system and the behavior it engenders.

Students are suspended three days for smoking, and they are not suspended for stealing or lying. What does that teach a child? That smoking is more immoral than thievery or faking reality. Students are suspended for a few days for a host of reasons—but we adults initiated force against them to make them go to school in the first place. The only discipline system we have is basically contradictory. When a child sees this kind of irrationality on the part of adults, what does this do to his sense of moral values? When a child sees that he gets more attention from teachers by being bad or stupid (some teachers have only four or five students in a class), what does this do to his incentives for learning?

When an upright teacher sees what kinds of moral lessons are being taught to children in his school, what does that do to his sense of morality? When teachers are forced to lower their standards on pain of losing their jobs, what kind of "moral" choice is being offered to them? When teachers see little kids shaken down in the bathroom and beaten up in the halls by other students, is it any wonder that they are demoralized and their values traumatized? When a hard-working teacher sees that some teachers have only four or five students in their classes all day (EMS, or crisis classroom), when he watches a guidance teacher spend the whole day seeing individual students on a one-to-one basis, or when he sees the audio-visual aids man sitting at his desk reading the paper and smoking his pipe all day, he realizes that a few clever (?) people have cut out nice little niches for themselves that amount to on-the-job retirement. What does this do to his sense of justice? He has to work with 150 every day. What is it that teachers learn in public school?

It will take a strike to solve a problem of this magnitude. A strike is the only weapon teachers have, and since the Taylor Law doesn't allow striking outside the classroom, the solution is to strike on the inside.

Yes, my advice to teachers is to go on strike in the classroom: water it down; provide no challenge; give no meat. You can't teach them anyway, so stop trying. Make the school building a meaningless shell. Stop working so hard. Provide "experiences" at a simplistic grade level—at least four grade levels below the one you teach. Make it easy for them; have them fill in the blanks with the patently obvious. Don't lecture; pass out a xerographed sheet and tell them to read it to themselves silently, then test them on it with another sheet. Don't bother to mark them; just collect them—the children won't remember or care. Keep the floor clean—it's less suspicious. Have rap sessions ("oral discussion") about various programs on TV—since they know a lot about TV, let them teach you. Read the newspaper at your desk—when they see that you are busy, they'll stop bothering you. Allow them to talk as much as they please. If someone complains, tell them you don't know how to make them stop (which is true). Don't raise your voice to project to the back of the room; speak calmly and quietly, and if half the class doesn't hear it, who cares? Certainly not the children or their parents, so why should you? Don't wait for somebody else to force you to lower your standards; eliminate them now yourself. If somebody disputes the way you're handling it, tell him you want the children to "find their personal identity" or "enhance their self-concept." Give everybody an A in everything they hand in—that way the children will tell their parents that they like your course.

Join the teachers' union and be active in it—even though it means making common cause with powerful and uneducated truckdrivers—before you get tenure. Then if they refuse to give you tenure, you can complain and claim that your union membership was the reason they denied you tenure. The union will back you up. The merit system is a revolution away, and why should you be a martyr to a cause? Get yours—everybody else is.

When a fight breaks out in your classroom, take your time about breaking it up. Let them hurt each other a little bit; it takes two to make a fight, and they'll think about it a little harder next time. If the principal complains, tell him that you were afraid of getting hurt yourself. If you do get hurt, take a vacation for three months—society has decided that workmen's compensation will cover you, and you paid your taxes.

Absolve yourself of all responsibility for discipline problems—send them to the assistant principal. Reject responsibility for the children's negative behavior. They're not your children, and you are not a psychologist. You were not taught in college how to handle young criminals; you took no such course, and yet the State awarded you a certificate to teach. Furthermore, there was no such clause in your contract. If the assistant principal complains about how many you are sending down, tell him it's difficult to teach subject X with such a large class, and offer to "teach" a crisis classroom next year or a PM detention room this year without extra pay. Agree with him—yes, the children are awful bad. You see, if you allow the children to talk, you won't have much of a discipline problem. That's the way it's already done in New York City. The teacher walks into the classroom and says, "OK, those of you who want to rap, go to the back of the room; those who want to learn subject X, come to the front of the room." Five or six come to the front, and the rest go to the back.

Never holler at the children to shut up because (1) they won't shut up anyway and (2) you'll only antagonize them and make your discipline problems worse. After a few weeks you'll get used to the noise and won't notice it. If your principal complains about the noise, ask him to teach you how to control it. If he's so stupid as to make a suggestion, tell him you tried it and it didn't work.

Don't stand up in the front of the classroom to lecture. Ask questions, conduct a discussion, or teach. There is no reason in the world why you should place yourself in a position whereby you and the knowledge you represent can be made the butt of their jokes and insipid laughter. Knowledge should not be laughed at. Anything less than this, and you prostitute your profession.

For a teacher today, remaining moral is a vastly difficult task. It requires rigid adherence to and awareness of context. Never forget that education is public—or you're sunk. You won't survive. Because of the constant psychological bombardment, never fail to make a moral judgment—it's the only way to remain sane.

Make it clear to everybody and anybody who will listen that you will not discontinue this strike until and unless teachers begin to receive a little simple respect from the children, until parents begin to take responsibility for their children's behavior in the classroom and teach them to shut up and listen.

There was a boy, several years ago, Edwin X., who put a plate of feces on a teacher's desk with a candy bar stuck in it. He was 17 at the time. He is now 22 and lives next door to me in my apartment complex. He is now beginning to take part in community activities and is teaching his values to a Little League baseball team. He thinks his plate of feces was, and is, funny. What will happen when Edwin X gets on the Board of Education in a few years? Will he think that such actions are simply juvenile mischief, and condone them? Student behavior had better be improved upon soon, or it will be too late, because the new, younger generation won't see the necessity of it when they come of age and join the establishment.

As teachers, we cannot underestimate the size or the location of the war we fight. At a time of history when dedicated teaching means to perpetuate the continuing evils in education, the better people don't. We must remove our sanction, man the barricades, strike.

Therese De Soubiese has been teaching for 24 years.