by Dana R. Casey 7/26/15
For a period of time I worked for a Catholic high school whose mission was to help urban students who wanted to graduate from college. I was thrilled by the chance to work at such a school.
I had already spent a decade working at my district’s top college prep school and I developed an aptitude for working with students lacking in skills, but wanting to achieve. I helped many a student achieve that dream and to this day have former students stop me on the street, in stores, and at festivals to tell me how much, for example, the research paper skills I gave them in ninth grade saved them their first semester in college.
I looked forward to doing the same at a Catholic school where I would also be allowed talk about God and faith AND in a school where I hoped discipline and academics would be held to a higher standard. As good as my previous public school was, they never unlocked the full potential of students because they were soft on holding students accountable to the academic and behavior standards that they should have required.
It was not long before I realized that the same old excusing and soft racism of lowered expectations was going to happen in this Catholic school just as it did in the public schools. Before the first quarter ended, I had learned that this school would perpetuate the same psychological sickness of enabling that is destroying public education.
Here follows an example:
Two cousins, let’s call them Michael and Tony, entered ninth grade together. The school had just opened, so we only had the ninth grade class. It was, and would remain, a small school with around 120 students per grade level. There was one English teacher, one history, one science, and so on that first year. I taught both these young men English.[pullquote]The students I teach are like people everywhere. If you give them an opportunity to work less and open the door to more excuses, and if you make it easier to avoid work, most of them will take the path of least resistance.[/pullquote]
The students read Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. At the beginning of the novel each student was assigned one specific character to follow and what to note. When it was time to write their first high school essay, I provided graphic organizers, examples, and model essays. Most of these students had never written an essay and they would need lots of assistance (“scaffolding” in teacher jargon).
After each step had been taught and practiced, students had received individual help, and graphic organizers had been filled out, I brought laptops into the room for students to type the essay, an absolute requirement. After all, this was a college prep high school and hand written final drafts would be unacceptable in college.
Keep in mind that I had written most of the introductory paragraph for them, sans thesis, and much of the concluding paragraph. All they had to write were three body paragraphs. The laptops were made available in class for five days; all the students needed to do was type. I also had an assistant (unheard of in public schools) to help students as needed. The computer lab stayed open before school, during lunch, and after school and 4-5 tutors were available after school. Furthermore, the computer technology teacher allowed them to work on the essay during his class time that week to help them with formatting and other computer issues, so the students had 10 class hours and plenty of support to type three paragraphs.
Had students completed the graphic organizer, typing the three body paragraphs would be a matter of copying and refining what was already on the organizer. Easy yes? However, Michael and Tony did none of the reading, none of the noting, none of the planning, and they paid attention to none of the lessons. While others wrote on their laptops, I frequently caught the cousins researching tennis shoes or playing solitaire, anything but typing an essay. Throughout the quarter, I repeatedly informed administrators, tutors, and parents about how far these two and others were behind, but there was no change.[pullquote]Urban students recognize from a mile away weak do-gooders determined to fight social injustice, and they know how to manipulate them.[/pullquote]
When the essay was over three weeks past due, after the last late submission date and the quarter was about to close, the academic dean came to me asking to let them submit hand-written essays. My response was, “Absolutely not! I made my expectations clear and I gave them plenty of time and support.” Her reply was, “But this is a matter of social injustice! They don’t have a computer or the internet at home!”
I reminded her that I had provided the cousins multiple opportunities and that there were plenty of generous resources given to them by the school, resources which these two had squandered. But she would not be swayed. In her mind, I lacked compassion because I would not allow them to turn in an essay more than three weeks past due and hand-written to boot. I still refused. Other teachers generally caved to such pressure. They too believed in social justice policies.
Now, I understand this woman thought that she was full of compassion and that I was unfeeling for the suffering of these socially and economically deprived children i.e. black children. I know this woman saw her position as enlightened and mine as cold. She had retired from her position as a principal of a very affluent Catholic elementary/middle school in a very affluent suburb, and had pined all her life to help those suffering from the world’s social injustices. She had even gotten a master’s degree in urban education after retirement, so strong was her desire to help those less fortunate than she.
What she had not done was lived and worked with these students for 14 years as I had. She had not grown up in the city as I had. She had not watched her father teach in an urban college prep school for 35 years as I had.
The students I teach are like people everywhere. If you give them an opportunity to work less and open the door to more excuses, and if you make it easier to avoid work, most of them will take the path of least resistance. This is especially true when we no longer instill character, morals, and honor in our society’s children. Push them to achieve and they generally rise to the challenge…even urban black students. . . because it is human nature!
Urban students recognize from a mile away weak do-gooders determined to fight social injustice, and they know how to manipulate them. Urban students also grow to respect a teacher who holds them to higher standards, although at first they will struggle and fight and accuse that teacher of being a racist (or just plain evil if she is black).
Eventually most, but not all, realize that the former teacher is not concerned about their education, while the latter is. The former teacher mostly makes excuses and lets students slide through without much learning or growth. The latter teacher stubbornly holds to her standards through all the battering, accusations and excuses, and her students start to grow. Often, the students who once hated that teacher love her by the end of the year, because she really taught them.
These two cousins had learned that excuses work at this school and especially with this dean. They did not grow at all. They spent the rest of the year doing absolutely no work. They failed out of the school and did not return. Who knows where they ended up, but it was not in a school that provided as many opportunities as ours. Other students witnessed such moments and learned also that they could run to the dean and others who had “compassion” for their lives full of “social injustice”. The school actually enabled them to fail.
We have become a nation of enablers and it is nowhere more clearly present than in the schools.
According to addiction and family therapist Darlene Lancer, “enabling is a term often used in the context of a relationship with an addict. It might be a drug addict or alcoholic, a gambler, or a compulsive over-eater. Enablers, rather than addicts, suffer the effects of the addict’s behavior.” Nowadays, we create students and citizens addicted to a drug I call Blame and Complain/Accuse and Excuse.
Lancer explains “Enabling is ‘removing the natural consequences to the addict of his or her behavior.’ Professionals warn against enabling because evidence has shown that an addict experiencing the damaging consequences of his addiction on his life has the most powerful incentive to change”.
Students have no incentive to change when they are not held accountable. The cousins might have changed if they had been held accountable from the first day of school, if they had been told that they would be asked to leave after the first quarter if they chose not to work. Other students seeing them removed for doing no work might have been provided an incentive for working harder. Instead they learned that they could gain sympathy and make excuses, thereby never achieving their real potential.
I was the only teacher in that school who had experience working with urban students. During my first quarter I came across ten students who refused to learn and whose disruptive and disrespectful behavior impeded the learning of other, more serious students. I recommended that those ten students be removed. We could have done this with impunity, especially since we had ten students more than our enrollment quota. But the school had “compassion” and refused to remove them. None of those same students were there the next year, but their behavior had already damaged the school’s culture.
I currently have a ninth grader who comes every day, but does nothing except talk and disrupt. Students who’ve known him since middle school say he did the same all through middle school. Why should he change? His behaviors and laziness have gotten him through school so far. I will fail him, but I wonder if the administration will override me and pass him. If they do, he will do nothing in tenth grade just as he has in ninth. He has never felt the sting of the “natural consequences” of his self-destructive behaviors.
Lancer adds, “Codependents often feel compelled to solve other people’s problems. If they’re involved with addicts, particularly drug addicts, they usually end up taking on the irresponsible addict’s responsibilities. Their behavior starts as a well-intentioned desire to help, but in later stages of addiction, they act out of desperation. The [relational] dynamics become skewed, so that the sober partner increasingly over-functions and the addict increasingly under-functions.”
The codependent, sober partner in this case is the school system and even the society who make it the exclusive responsibility of teachers for failing students, then refuse to hold students, parents, and other stakeholders responsible. When one colleague asked a student, “Don’t you want to learn?” the reply was, “I ain’t s’posed to learn; you s’posed to teach me.” Students, their parents, and society seem to think that learning can happen without any effort from students, thus, the students become completely passive.
The system amplifies this attitude when it asks students to fill out surveys evaluating their teachers, with results that will impact teachers’ pay. Think back to your school days. Remember the teacher that you couldn’t stand at the time, but later realized that he had dragged you kicking and screaming into real learning? If you evaluated that teacher today, what would you say? Now, imagine what you would have said while you were still kicking and screaming.
Lancer finishes the basic definition of enabler with, “… [the skewed dynamic] builds resentment on both sides, along with the addict’s expectation that the over-functioning partner will continue to make things right when the addict doesn’t meet his or her responsibilities.”
Teachers are increasingly more resentful and less willing to put in the immensely draining effort to teach students who aggressively refuse to learn and who are backed by parents who almost always point the finger at the teacher. Even when parents are supportive of the teacher, students function in an environment where they are unlikely be held accountable for their actions. Eric Holder even demanded that accountability be weakened, not strengthened, for black students.
Students become resentful of the teacher when society tells them the teacher is the reason they are not learning. They are not taught that learning can only happen when THEY put in the effort to absorb the materials that teachers present to them.
Similar enabling can be found in affluent schools, as parents increasingly pay doctors to falsely diagnosis soft disabilities such as depression, anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and ADHD, which they can use as excuses for their child’s failures. They then hold the schools responsible for making ridiculous, even impossible, individual adaptions for their child. When the parents don’t get the results they desire, they hire expensive lawyers who drool over large settlements.
This same analysis can easily be applied to the welfare state increasingly overtaking our nation. Those who receive welfare become resentful if they don’t get more and those who are constantly taxed to pay for welfare grow gradually more resentful of those they see not working while living off of their toil. The argument can be applied to the mounting accusations of racism or homophobia or Islamaphobia being used constantly. The resentment of the enablers may one day build to an ugly climax.
We are a nation of enablers. Too many of our citizens are addicted to a drug called Blame and Complain/Accuse and Excuse. Too many others are happy to enable their addiction; and they consider themselves morally superior for doing so.
Dana R. Casey is a veteran high school English teacher of more than two decades in an East-coast urban system. • (1818 views)