Troubles in Education Land

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Shortly after lunch one day last week, I got a call from Todd, a former student of mine in UTEP, the University of Chicago’s teacher education program. Todd left Chicago a few years ago and has been teaching in another city. We’ve stayed in touch. He was in town this past summer and we had a long lunch together on the back patio of a local restaurant, trying hard to ignore the light rain that was settling on us and on our sandwiches, all because I’m still not comfortable eating in indoor restaurants. He was excited about being back in the classroom face to face with his students after a year that was remote in every sense of the word.

“How are you doing, Todd?” (not his real name.)

“Not so good. They put me in The Rubber Room.”

For the uninitiated, there was – and may still be – a physical space in the headquarters of the New York Department of Education where they parked teachers who had been removed from their classrooms for a variety of offenses, including inappropriate sexual behavior with students, using physical force, insubordination, drug and alcohol use, etc. Teachers could be stuck in The Rubber Room for years as the DOE’s apparatus for conducting hearings crawled along at a maddeningly slow pace. I don’t know if Todd’s school district actually had such a designated space or whether the term survives as the label for the particular hell of exile he was experiencing.

Todd has been teaching in a middle school in a low-income community in his adopted city. His classroom is small and crowded. One day, as he was moving through the room, he put his hand on the shoulder of a girl as he was trying to navigate around her seat. He thought nothing of it, but several days later he was told to gather his belongings and was escorted out of his room and brought to the principal’s office where he was told that he had been reported to the DCFS (Department of Child and Family Services) for inappropriate physical contact with a student.

Todd was beside himself. His union rep told him that he would probably be fired because although he had already been teaching for a number of years, this was only his second year in the district, and he was not yet tenured or vested or whatever the local term was. On the other hand, his principal, who had been clear about how much he valued Todd’s work, assured him that he would be back in a few days. Todd’s call to me was an indication of how little faith he had in that optimistic scenario.

 He may have been shell-shocked, but he still had the presence of mind to begin reaching out to his network to mobilize whatever support its members could offer. What I could provide, in addition to a sympathetic ear, was a connection with a colleague in a local university who ran a highly respected teacher education program similar in important ways to UTEP’s. She responded almost immediately with information about how the system worked in his school district and people to contact for support. Meanwhile, Todd’s wife was gathering support and advice from a group of lawyers she was connected to, and I’m sure there were dozens of other people Todd reached out to that I’m unaware of. He was definitely not alone.

Let me interrupt the narrative of Todd’s story for a moment to interject some thoughts on what he was facing and what it signaled about teaching in the current context. Anyone who has walked down a hallway full of first and second graders who are familiar with you, knows how many hugs you have to deliver before reaching the end of the gauntlet. Most kids crave that attention and providing it is an important part of building a safe and loving relationship between teachers and students. Things get a little stickier when you move up the grade ladder, but I would argue that physical contact is equally vital in the upper grades. I could never have made it through a day in my middle school classroom if I had to restrain myself from placing a reassuring hand on a student’s shoulder when they were struggling or in need of praise. Of course, I knew which students didn’t like to be touched, either by me or their classmates, and I knew what kinds of touches could carry the wrong connotations. Appropriate touching was part of my toolbox for relationship building and it pains me to think that teachers like Todd now have to think twice before exercising this most human of actions.

I understand the context which has brought about this excess of caution. Of course, there have been cases of abuse by teachers guilty of inappropriate touching, but they are extraordinarily rare and to use a very contemporary analogy, banning any physical contact between student and teacher is like saying we have to give up vaccinations because of extremely rare side effects. Everywhere we turn, we see signs of distrust, suspicion and a troubling inability to understand people’s actions in the context in which they occur. In Todd’s situation, the context was so clearly a practical one – the need to move safely from one area of the classroom to another. Sexualizing such an act is itself a sign of hysterical and pathological thinking.

However unjust and unwarranted Todd’s situation was, it was causing him great distress. The union rep’s dire prediction that he would be fired had set Todd to thinking about options for a sudden career change. A trapdoor had opened under his feet and deposited him in a morass of uncertainty about the future direction of his life.

Rosellen and I went out that afternoon to walk in a nature preserve we had just recently discovered within minutes of our house. It was hard to focus on the peaceful surroundings already stripped of color in anticipation of the coming winter. Todd was there with me on the trail but there was nothing more I could do for him. We were within sight of our car at the end of the walk when my phone rang. It was Todd again. He had been cleared and told he could return to his classroom on Monday morning. It was over as abruptly as it had begun. We celebrated with Todd and shared his relief while resenting the unnecessary pain the incident had inflicted on him.

I haven’t heard back from him since his return, but Todd still faced some real challenges. His students had seen him escorted out of the classroom by security staff. He was going to have to begin his week by dispelling the rumors that had surely circulated about what egregious sin he had committed and how he got away with it. If the student in question had not been transferred from his class, he was going to figure out how to approach her and, possibly, her parents to reassure them that he was not going to retaliate. Moreover, he is going to have to deal with the chilling effect of this shameful attack on his professional integrity. Never again will he be able to touch a student without thinking about the potential consequences of this most human of actions. Just who is the beneficiary of making him a more fearful practitioner of his craft?

This is not the only troubling bit of troubling news for educators.

ITEM: In her blog, Diane Ravitch reports that a Texas legislator has posted a list of 850 books that should be banned from schools because “they may cause students discomfort.” I have printed out this list, which I would be happy to share with anyone who requests it. It’s a bizarre collection, united only by the fact that it covers the topics that are high on the interest list for most students – sex, gender, race and class – topics that this legislator should know, if he extracted his head from the sand, that most kids are already absorbing on TV and the social media. There’s a whole category of books being nominated for oblivion that address the everyday problems of navigating the teenage years, books like The Courage to Be Yourself: True Stories by Teens About Cliques, Conflicts and Overcoming Peer Pressure by All Desetta. In the effort to shield students from discomfort, this benighted legislator is depriving students of resources that might help them deal with the discomfort they are already feeling. I was delighted to hear from a friend who had also discovered this list that she has found it to be a useful resource for recommending books for her daughter’s middle school class library. That’s not exactly what our friend in Texas had in mind. What his misguided campaign got me thinking is that one definition of a good education is one that “causes discomfort.” New and challenging ideas and ways of thinking can be both uncomfortable and exhilarating at the same time, and anyone who hasn’t experienced that duality is truly uneducated.

ITEM: Ravitch also reported a last-minute reduction in the infrastructure bill before passage of an item for the repair and renovation of school buildings, which, in many school districts around the country, are no longer safe spaces for student learning. While the focus of “parent involvement” is on masking and Critical Race Theory, issues cynically manufactured by the Republicans to stoke outrage among voters, the real issues they should be highlighting at school board meetings are the ones like facilities, materials and salaries that cost money and make a real difference to the education of children. For the first time in memory, education was a hot button issue in electoral races – and all for the wrong reasons.

These are troubling times in the world of education, but every day students and teachers will continue to report for duty and try to make the best of a bad situation.

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Marv Hoffman

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