Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Our Children’s Ethics – and our Own

Our Children’s Ethics – and our Own

This was a response to a Facebook Post reporting a recent assault, in Central Park, on a 31-year-old jogger by four teens and a twelve-year old, being part of a recent pattern of targeted violence there.

These kids are criminals. But one should also ask oneself what kind of society produces such criminals. In India, there has been a spate of horrible rapes and now a strong public reaction against this. But as in here, the questions regarding what brought this about, what are the social conditions that led to this -- these questions are rarely asked. This is not to excuse the criminality, but to seek to cure it and prevent it by looking at its causes, as one should do for any pathology.

The social and economic situation, and the social ethics, in the parts of India where the rapes mostly occur are different from other parts, as they are from here. Turning to our own culture, why is there such a resistance against strongly condemning (I am not speaking here of banning) the extreme and unnecessary violence portrayed for so long on screens and the extreme misogyny accepted as cool in certain forms of music? Shouldn't we teach children, including by example, to turn away from such things, to despise them?

These are highly lucrative businesses, and those dollars are coming from people watching and listening to these things, accepting them as normal and shelling out cash for them.

Of course, violence and its celebration as well as misogyny have been part of many cultures, and ours has never been an exception in this. I am against political correctness and all for free speech, but the transmission of ethics to the young, along with the awakening of empathy, compassion, kindness and gentleness have always been, in most human cultures, a part of the perceived duty of parents and adults, best set by contact, caring and example.

These include (and may be most clearly evident in) those cultures we (most mainstream civilizations, including Indian) arrogantly view as "primitive" -- such as those of hunter-gatherers, even though (or perhaps because) the killing of animals and, in certain cases, of plants, is something the tribals have to do themselves each day in order to survive -- rather than having these things done for them in mass slaughterhouses and farms, as with us.

I would not necessarily tie this particular incident to the culture that is transmitted and commercially exploited by our entertainment industry. But we are exercising, at best, a double standard here by accepting and even promoting that debased culture. This includes, by the way, the "I, me and myself !" (or "Me and mine -- and f**k the rest of you!") ethos.  This is flaunted by many of our screen heroes, both in their screen personae and in their personal, too often public, lives.  And this is part of the reason they are admired, even worshiped. And yet we find this attitude disturbing when we see it evidenced in the way our children, neighborhood youth or students speak and act.

In the absence or dissipation of the traditional cultures, with all their problems but also their basic values and their histories and mythologies, what many of our young imbibe is the culture (and manufactured mythology and history, from Disney onwards) transmitted by the entertainment media, along with, from their peers and older children in their neighborhoods and schools, a "street culture" that is also degenerate, even depraved.

So we have a disconnect between the generations, between working parents too busy, unable or unwilling to teach their kids what humans have always taught their young, and children who run wild, with their own (to us) strange ethical rules and attitudes. The schools aren’t usually able to bridge that gap, and this isn't even considered to be one of the duties and rights of teachers.

I have to be careful, except with freshly arrived ELL (English Language Learner) kids who tend, in many cases, to be more receptive to such things, with less hostility towards and distance from their teachers, viewing us more as humans like themselves, gifting us with good intentions, sometimes undeservedly -- I have to be careful, with the rest, of ever venturing, even by example, let alone speech, into areas of right and wrong, or of duty and responsibility. I know I will be quickly disciplined by the call, "Just do your job -- teach!"

For teachers’ assistants (paraprofessionals) such a venture is even riskier.
I have long believed that, especially for high school regular ed. teachers with up to 170 students to teach each day (or more, each week, if one is a science teacher with many labs), that our main concern, as teachers, should be the subject (or, too often, subjects) we teach.  To say otherwise may often be mere pretense. 

But we cannot be oblivious to the human side of our job.  We need to notice what's going on with our students, at least in the classroom and with homework, and that cannot really be isolated from what is happening in the rest of their lives.  

Even basic teaching and learning cannot proceed without an atmosphere in which there is some degree of mutual respect and some commonality of ethical culture between the students and between students and teachers.  I need not go into the details of all that transpires, making teaching and learning impossible, when these things are absent or badly frayed.  It has been accepted that the establishment of this atmosphere is primarily the job of the teacher. I would differ with this, along with most other teachers, and say that the students have at least a shared responsibility, as do parents.  So does the larger community, if such a thing exists in any coherent form.

If we have a situation in which some of the same things we find objectionable in students are also present in many teachers, then those of us who cannot deal with this have little choice but to leave the profession as fast as we can without landing up, quite literally, on the street. 

Perhaps such teachers (who have imbibed the same popular mores as the kids) will find some commonality with their students, and so succeed.  It will become, even more than it has been, all about the dollar and the show, like much of show business is, and school will become, even more, a place where only the savvy, slick and hard-hearted can hope to survive.  And, even more so than now, it will be those who are best at this who will climb up and dictate to the rest.

If this isn't what we want, then it is up to us to publicly voice our concerns. Not to do this is to be as derelict in our duties as not bothering much about really teaching the subject or helping the kids learn it.

I had noted, in earlier posts and writings, that there are two main sets of issues that have plagued the schools, long before the current punitive reforms and the testing mania and privatization hit us. 

One of these sets contains the structural issues, over which we have some control, if not as individual teachers then collectively, although some would deny that.  These include issues of purpose, choice, background, resources, sequence, pacing, time, focus, feedback, familiarization, habituation, success, diligence, confidence, application, connection, exploration and questioning.  I will not elaborate on these again here.  And there are other things one could add to that list. 

This is not yet another list of what a teacher has to incorporate into a lesson, although some of these things do need to be considered in a unit plan.  It is more the structure that the system itself has to at least acknowledge, consider and try to provide so that teaching and learning can proceed without the heartache, failure and misery that is so prevalent.

But there is also the set of social issues, over which we have far less control. These are the ones that have been primarily responsible for wrecking the schools. The chaos and tension they create do not allow the structural issues their due attention. On the social front, the most we can do is publicly voice our concerns, both individually and collectively.  This does make a difference.

On both the structural and the social issues, no worthwhile, meaningful progress will be made unless we, the teachers and others in the schools, along with concerned parents and sincere students, bring these to the forefront.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Despair and Hope (Preface to "The Job")

Despair and Hope (Preface to The Job)

I despair at times that there will be any worthwhile changes in the schools here (and perhaps elsewhere) -- changes that bubble up, instead of being imposed with deafness and blindness from above, as they usually are, with all the damage that does.  I know it will not happen during the time I have left in the schools, but what bothers me even more is the realization that it may not happen for generations to come.

That doesn't mean one should not keep working towards that, in whatever minor way one can.

After all, it took hundreds of years before the transatlantic slave trade was abolished, and the repercussions of that trade are still visible to this day on both sides of the Atlantic. But at least it was abolished, and the slaves themselves played their part in that, however voiceless and disempowered they had been.  And even the mighty colonial empires receded, at least to some overt degree, and not from the kind volition of the imperialists.

In the link below are some personal reflections on my decades spent working in the schools.

The Job 

But let me salute here those who persevere in working towards those worthwhile changes, in very difficult circumstances -- and all of those who tried to accomplish this in the past.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Walking to Work and Back, 2014 (Preface to Two Beings)

Walking to Work and Back, 2014 (Preface to Two Beings)
I have often marveled at those who not only work full-time in the schools, but also do second or even third jobs.  I would count the duties at home, of those who are raising children or taking care of elders or the ailing, as at least another full-time job. This burden, that has its joys as well as its sorrows, appears to fall most heavily on women, who make up much of the teaching staff, especially in the lower grades. But many men also carry this weight, in addition to their workload from their teaching jobs.  

For both men and women teachers, the job-related work often eats up many hours beyond the official work-day and work-week.

The travails of teaching in the public schools of a city such as New York may or may not be known to the general public in this country or abroad. It is often a difficult job, to put it mildly -- some would say an impossible one. And experience does not always lessen the difficulty or reverse the impossibility. But teachers adapt and even find sustenance from their work -- and
not just financially, vital as that is.  

If they are unable to do this, they quit, are forced out -- or somehow continue to teach, finding solace in other things. Of course, many successful teachers also fall by the wayside, increasingly so as the pressures mount on the schools. And success can be a transient thing, especially in a profession where so many changeable factors are outside one's control.

I describe, in these verses (in Two Beings), my own walks home after work in the evenings. For many years, I used to travel back and forth from work using public transportation, spending an hour and a half, on average, each way. I was younger then, and I was able to cope. 

At the time, I was teaching my own subject (physics) and I felt that what I was doing, even with less effort than I now put in, was more meaningful and helpful to the students.  So going to work and back used to be different, for me, than it is now.  The morning commutes, mainly by bus, were relatively peaceful, with my mind settling on what exactly I was going to teach that day, and how I would go about it.  The long trek back was fatiguing.  

But things do change, for all of us.  

Over the past several years, I have worked closer to where I live, walking just over a half-hour each way. 

The walks back home in the evenings, even in the darkness and cold of the winters, are now relatively tranquil (as the rush back home may not be for those with major family responsibilities or a second paid job).  The walks to work in the mornings, even in the brightest of seasons, are very different. 

In the evenings and nights, I walk through the city streets, tired from a long day at work, trundling my school things.  But I notice many things, especially the changing skies and the trees.  In the mornings, I manage to munch on a bagel and sip coffee while waiting at intersections.  But my mind is cluttered, racing, preoccupied and confused.

At work, the teaching instincts and habits take over, and I do what many school-teachers do, seeking to notice and attend to the students while still trying to maintain focus on the subject matter. But it is a sad, mad rush, and, increasingly, a cruel, even criminal business, despite whatever extraordinary efforts students and teachers may put in.

We are all different, and so no two teachers are alike. But there may be some things that many of us have in common or may at least empathize with. So here's one old teacher walking back from teaching, late in the evening, and then going back to work early the next day -- and what he sees, feels and thinks as he does this.  Perhaps we shall hear from others.

Two Beings