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Commentary Last Updated: Feb 26th, 2007 - 00:57:29

Shame on shame
By Gabriel S. Hudson
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Feb 26, 2007, 00:55

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This year I have entered the strange world of New York City�s public education system as a teaching fellow. The Fellows program allows me to bypass some of the requirements for certification while I work in a high-needs school.

Similar to Teach for America, fellows fill teaching positions no one else wants and come in with experience from other careers. They are an attractive addition to many a troubled school because they bring an enthusiasm for closing the achievement gap and making a difference in the lives of young people.

Working as a teaching fellow has its intrinsic benefits. It is very rewarding to help a child finally understand a concept that has confused her and held her back for years. For kids that do not have positive relations with any adult males in their lives, the feeling is indescribable when they finally come around to the idea that you care about them.

My kids are lovable but rough. I cannot over emphasize their reflexive maliciousness at every effort to help them in anyway especially when it comes to discipline. Still, no matter how bad the kids are, they are always trumped by the adults in the system and the system itself.

Recently I was summoned for an in-school hearing. My charge was �verbal corporal punishment.� Ignore for the moment that the label itself is an oxymoron. You cannot physically beat a kid with words. Sticks and stones may break your bones but nouns, verbs, and adjectives are vibrations of air created by vocal chords. That is beside the point. The very fact that I was charged with such a ridiculous iniquity speaks volumes about the inadequacies of the system.

As a teacher in New York City you cannot ever touch a child. You cannot pat them on the back of put a hand on their shoulder to comfort them when they are having a meltdown. This protects against charges of actual corporal punishment but it also impedes effective means of reaching challenged and emotionally disturbed kids. Study after study shows that making physical contact with a troubled and traumatized child helps build a bond necessary if you ever want to teach them a new skill. That skill can include multiplication or how to manage one�s emotions in times of frustration.

The �no touching� directive is expanded to no yelling. You cannot yell at a kid. You can raise your voice to direct a class -- which is often necessary to quell the raucous mobs that pass for classes in these schools -- but precisely directing a loud voice to a child is a no-no. If you want to discipline an out of control student you simply fill out large amounts of paperwork. The paperwork is then submitted to a person of authority where it is passed on to a discipline committee. The committee reaches a conclusion as to the proper punishment, which is usually nothing at all. Should any sort of punishment actually ever be handed down to a child, it is usually so long after the original infraction that it serves no corrective purpose and merely frustrates the child into greater acts of rebellion. The kid has no idea why he is given lunch detention because he cannot connect a specific action with an immediate consequence. He is forced to sit by himself while the other kids eat together and plot his next episode of �acting out.�

This do-nothing system creates an environment where the students are completely not in control of their own behavior but certainly in control of mine. They know I cannot do anything to them and they know what they can do to me if I try. Whenever I attempt to discipline a child or even give a warning, I am the one being warned. The student recites the handbook to me and promises that should I get her in trouble, she will promptly fill out paperwork accusing me of some greater malice including, God forbid, yelling.

I do not consider yelling at a child or filling out discipline paperwork an act of intimidation against a student. I consider it doing my job. Discipline and structure actually help students learn because those that actually want to put forth an effort are not made to sit in a primate house while a teacher engages in crowd control rather than instruction. So, I discipline -- or attempt to discipline -- quite a lot; threats be damned. This is why it came as no surprise to me that now I am charged with �verbal corporal punishment.�

The in-school hearing is intense (if you take it seriously). At a minimum the principal, assistant principal, union representative, and accused are present. I am given the option of knowing the name of the accuser or not. I am advised by my representative not to know the name of the student because, almost assuredly, the next charge that will follow includes intimidation and retribution. I can never look at the kid wrong again if I know who s/he is and I certainly can never give a bad grade.

So, without knowing the source of the charges they, began reading my list of sins. I was surprised my wrongdoing was so shallow. Some kid from some class filled out the paperwork saying I made him feel �ashamed and embarrassed.� That�s it. I did not curse. There was no yelling and certainly no touching. I hurt the poor tot�s feelings. Never forget, in New York City public schools this is a grave offense.

So, I answered charges of shaming and embarrassment. However, I did not answer them the way I was advised. I was supposed to be apologetic and speak to my intentions. I was supposed to claim that I never meant to embarrass anyone or cause any shame. And then I was supposed to pass along my sincere apologies to the unknown accuser and promise to be more affirming in my classroom. (Note: Earlier in the year I was raked over the coals for not being �warm� enough with the children.)

I took none of these suggestions. Instead I countered my �superiors.� I admitted I fully intend to embarrass or shame sometimes. I do not want to make kids feel stupid and I do not want to damage their paper-thin self-esteem. But I do want to instill some sense of shame. My kids do horrible things to each other and me. They throw anything they can get their hands on. They punch, kick, and slap each other regularly. They steal like bandits. They curse like sailors. And they attack any effort to help them do better. I have been assaulted a few times this year and spat on. I have watched as a large wooden table was snapped in half with the implication that I was next. But the only emotion I may convey in the classroom is pride, pride, pride.

For many of my students this is their third attempt at the eighth grade. They have drivers� licenses and one even has two kids. But they cannot do two digit addition so, yes, I want them to be embarrassed enough with themselves to do something about it. I tell them they are smart and capable but they need to work harder. Convincing them they need to improve and can achieve is an important step to actual improvement and achievement. This is all in an effort to create real self-esteem in them that comes from accomplishments rather than the hollow praise that follows doing nothing. Telling kids they are beautiful and everything they do is great no matter what they do does not fill them with confidence despite what the best-intentioned touchy-feely administrator claims. Moving one�s self from point A to point B earns a more authentic, lasting pride.

I have also reminded my �superiors� that one reason I was hired as a fellow and thus sent to their mess of a failing school is because of my supposed expertise in civics. In an individualist society there is a high premium placed on personal responsibility. And with that comes the utility of shame. Ultimately I want to be a professor so, fortunately, I am quite good at lecturing.

Though most institutions in America are built on the assumptions of self-interests, there are times when our responsibilities to each other contribute to ordered society. The idea that we are responsible for ourselves for personal and collective benefits is a powerful and necessary motivator. The expectations that one needs to be able to earn an income, be an informed voter, not commit crime, and contribute somehow to their surroundings are all supported by systems and laws but are also reinforced by the notion of shame. Not only is life systemically harder without basic education, it should also be embarrassing not to have the baseline tools of self-sufficiency. And should one reach their late teens lacking those tools, they should not be coddled into delusions of greatness but gently corrected with a dose of self-realization even if said realization has a byproduct of embarrassment.

The irony of the hearing and future fall-out is that the whole process was very shaming. I am a bad, bad man. I should feel very ashamed at making someone feel ashamed. But I don�t. I think it is useful. I do not degrade the children. I know they cannot help the families, economies, and circumstances in which they were born. But I refuse to let these considerations prevent them or me from having meaningful expectations. I also believe this refusal to have fixed expectations for a student contributes greatly to a failing education system where meaningless advancement and ethereal sentiments supplant rigorous instruction and academic standards.

My time in the New York City public education system is approaching its conclusion. I do not think I will be fired for the crime of shaming but, like so many before me, I will not continue after one year. Among all the lamented efforts to hire and retain qualified people there is a corresponding effort to push those out the door who give it their best shot. The kids will all be passed on to high school no matter what they know. It is very damaging to a child�s ego to have them repeatedly fail a grade so, I am told it is better to put them in the next grade -- where they know even less than their peers -- than keep them behind until they get it right. Advancing them without merit also reinforces the notion of effortless achievement. Why work when you get the prize anyway? And why feel ashamed when you have not earned it?

Like so many of my colleagues I am pessimistic about the impact I have had on the students. Perhaps I have helped them learn a little something or feel cared about and perhaps that will motivate them later in life. For now, I see little fruit from that seed. But I also hope that my work with them at least suggested there is a better way to live than how they are currently conducting their lives. And in order to reach for a better future one must be a bit ashamed of his present self. So, despite all the charges against me and my high crimes against children this year -- along with algebra, civics, and community -- I hope I have also taught my students a small amount of shame.

Gabriel S. Hudson is a freelance writer, political operative, graduate student, and teacher in New York City�s public school system. He has a B.A. in government from the College of William and Mary and an M.A. in political theory from New York University. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in political theory.

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