The Blackboard Jungle
If we, as a society, were serious about education, we would have 10 students in a class with two assistants.
But, of course, this will never happen because we are constrained by logistics, which is directly related to money. And where do the logistics come from?
They come from the fact that the unsaid purpose of education, as far as the public is concerned, is day care.
With those opening paragraphs, I may have got your attention. I believe that educators, in general, are the ones who understand what the true purpose of education is, which I’ll explain a little later.
During a provincial election a number of years ago, I went to a forum on education. In amongst the practical issues of money, working conditions and all, I stood up and asked the candidates what they thought the true purpose of education was – in 25 words or fewer.
There was a slight titter throughout the meeting room while the candidates adjusted their composures. With a few little gasps and clearing of throats they began.
I’ll be kind, and not mention specific names, but the answers ranged from “producing a vibrant economy” to things like "life-long learner" — which was pretty good, but we all know where that came from — to “education is important” or “it’s important to know how to read."
The candidates did a good job answering considering most of them, I don’t think, really had a concept of the true purpose of education, except, perhaps, the NDP candidate. That doesn’t mean that I’m NDP. It’s just that she came the closest.
Back to day care for a moment. The last time teachers walked off the job, I don’t recall hearing complaints from parents about students missing out on their education.
I heard comments like, “What the heck am I supposed to do with my kids?”
There’s the unsaid purpose.
Do you remember the rumblings and slight uproar that took place when School District 23 went from one week to two weeks for spring break?
“What am I going to do with the kids?” cried many parents. And rightly so. That extra week is expensive. But I have to admit, as a teacher I loved it.
I believe it is true that we have evolved into a school system where about 30 kids in a class seems acceptable; 24 in lower grades, more or less. And it’s been that way for quite a few years.
That’s what we do: we go to work, and our kids go to school. In the minds of many people, school is day care. And like I said above, 24-30 kids per person seems to work.
But if we really think about it, though, what exactly are we doing?
Imagine yourself staring at 30 plus Grade 6 students, for example, waiting for you to transform them into “21st Century learners," the latest government initiative.
Your job is to teach them as individuals and engage them in critical thinking, problem solving, flexibility, adaptability, imagination, creative thinking, collaboration, innovation, empathy, civic and environmental responsibility…
Oh, yes, and to read, write and compute, too.
Their academic levels might typically range anywhere from Grade 2-9. You will have a variety of learning disabilities and behaviour problems.
You will be planning, teaching, assessing and evaluating for Language Arts (Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, Presenting), Social Studies, Science, Math, French, Health and Career Education, Music, Art, Drama, Physical Education.
I may have missed some.
Get the picture? Now, you’re going to successfully achieve all of the above with 30 plus kids in your class? You have got to be kidding.
On the one hand, we have a segment of society that believes it’s perfectly natural for one person to take care of 30 or so kids all day and teach them to read, write and do math.
On the other hand, we have the purists and academics who understand what the true purpose of education really is.
In 1916, John Dewey wrote in Democracy and Education:
“Beings who are born not only unaware of, but quite indifferent to, the aims and habits of the social group have to be rendered cognizant of them and actively interested. Education, and education alone, spans the gap.”
He is saying that while animals train their young in a biological sense, we must inculcate in our children all of our knowledge, skills, beliefs, values, goals, dreams… in short, transferring our “society” to them.
Is there anything more important than this?
And then there’s the famous quote from William Butler Yeats:
“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
The task of educators is to inspire.
Even Malcolm Forbes, a famous tycoon said:
“Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.”
Notice he doesn’t say “full one." This implies creativity, understanding and tolerance.
Before 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. said:
“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.”
That one pretty much speaks for itself as does another from John Dewey:
“Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
The government tends to have lofty goals, which really are in line with the true purpose of education. The problem is that they impose these goals on a system that is logistically designed for day care.
If we are to embrace the true purpose of education, which by the way is in alignment with the goals of the 21st Century learner, we must treat education accordingly.
If you think that I’m off my rocker suggesting that we have 10 kids to one teacher, then you’re probably in the day care camp.
If you agree with me, you’re probably just an extremely hardworking educator wondering how you made it through last month.
It is gratifying to see your students succeed.
I can still see the huge smile and light shining through Donald Prokopovich’s eyes when he completed reading his first short story. He was in Grade 5 and at the beginning of the year could barely read.
This had little to do with me. I owe my thanks to Emma Rand, our Learning Assistance teacher. She found some high-interest, low-vocabulary hockey books.
Donald just ate them up. He ran up to me on a Monday morning in late March and gave me the news – right in front of his friends.
He beamed, and I felt wonderful.
Then, there was Gary Mills, a tiny boy for Grade 5 with longish, blond hair. Typically, he always looked down so that his hair covered his eyes. He barely spoke and did very little school work.
It worried me a lot that I couldn’t get through to him.
One day in Social Studies, I asked the class to hand in their maps of Canada. Everyone did except Gary.
I asked, “Gary, where’s your map?”
He looked down.
Teresa Williams, who sometimes seemed like Gary’s lawyer, spoke for him.
“Gary hasn’t finished his map.”
I played along. “Please tell your client he’d better get it in by tomorrow.”
Gary looked up and smiled. A small explosion of joy shot through me. Perhaps humour will work with Gary.
The following morning, I stood and studied my class. I’d had a great time marking my students’ maps the previous evening, and I was excited to give them back even though my stomach was churning about what to do with Gary.
The thought entered my mind that this “nice” and supportive approach wasn’t working.
I turned my attention to Gary. “Gary. Do you have your map?”
His lawyer began to speak. “Sh-sh… Let Gary speak for himself.”
Irepeated, “Gary, Where is your map?”
He looked up at me under his hair. “I don’t have it.”
“When will you hand it in?”
“Tomorrow, I guess.”
“I guess? Look around yourself, Gary. Everyone has handed in their map except you, and I’ve already marked them. I know you can do it. When will you hand it in?”
“Tomorrow, I guess.” The class broke into laughter. My heart sank a little.
“Stop!” The class froze.
With feigned calmness, I heard myself say, “Gary, do not come back to school tomorrow unless you have completed your map.”
The class hushed. His lawyer piped up, “You can’t do that, Mr. Knight.”
I stared at Teresa for a moment. I looked back at Gary. “Do not come back to school tomorrow unless you have completed your map.”
I really couldn’t believe what I was saying.
The truth is Gary’s lawyer’s comments got me a little worried because I had a pretty good idea she was right. But I persevered. I looked over at Gary. “Do you understand, Gary?” A slight nod.
The next morning at 9:20 a.m., we were doing math. There was a loud knock at my door. Instantly, my gaze shot over to Gary’s vacant desk.
Then, all of yesterday’s events came cascading down upon me. I knew this knock had something to do with Gary.
Another loud knock. Sheepishly, I moved toward the door and opened it, slowly. The first thing I saw was Gary holding some books.
As I opened it wider, there was Gary’s father, Tony Mills, standing firmly and looking very big. Mr. Mills was the manager of one of the local banks. He was quite important and a "pillar" of the community.
I thought, “This is it. I’m toast.” Just as I was going to blither out an apology, Tony Mills extended his right hand.
I took it, and he shook my whole body vigorously as he said, “Thank you! Thank you, Mr. Knight! No one has ever done anything like this before. We have tried everything with Gary and nothing has worked. Finally, someone drew the line for him.”
I said something unintelligible like, “Well, I, uh… uh…”
“We’ve been working since 6 a.m. on his map. We hope it’s acceptable.”
He motioned for Gary to go into the class. Gary slid his map out of his books and gave it to me proudly as he walked by.
Mr. Mills said a quick good-bye to me and was on his way.
I drifted into the class, not really aware of what had just happened. I looked at Gary’s map. It looked pretty good. I looked over at Gary. His head was up and he was smiling.
Photo: Getty Images
In parts 1 and 2, Tom Carter, a Grade 6 student, had thrown a pair of scissors at his teacher, Mrs. Sprague. I suspended Tom for three days. I had never been able to contact his father.
I told Tom, and I stated in the suspension letter, that he could not return to school until I could meet with his father. There was no mother in the picture.
The day after I suspended Tom, his father came screaming and swearing into the school. I was able to contain him in my office. I also alluded to a future “100 thousand dollar meeting” convened to solve the problem…
“Ah! Thanks, Lois,” I chirped as she arrived in my office with two cups of coffee. Just in the nick of time, I thought. Mr. Carter, I’m sure, was just about to assault me, either verbally or physically, for saying that Tom may be suspended indefinitely.
“Here you go, Mr. Carter,” said Lois cheerfully.
Mr. Carter took the coffee, without a word, and guzzled the whole cup. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve, staring at me the whole time.
“What do you mean, suspended indefinitely?” he said, ignoring Lois.
“It means that if Tom proves to be a danger to others or to himself, or if he is interfering with the education program of other students, he cannot come to school,” I said as Lois quietly left, closing the door.
“What are you talking about? Tom has the right to come to school.”
“If he behaves himself,” I said.
“That’s a pile of crap!” he shouted. “His teacher hates him and picks on him!”
“Tom is defiant with me as well, Mr. Carter, so it’s not just Mrs. Sprague. I’ve also heard similar stories from the Librarian and his P. E. teacher.”
“Mrs. Sprague is a $%@!”
“Well, I certainly hope you don’t say things like that in front of Tom,” I said.
“Look, Tom can come back in two days if I can get assurance from you and Tom that he will improve his behavior. That is all we are asking.”
Mr. Carter finally agreed to my terms and Tom returned to school. What I hadn’t done was address in more detail the abusive way that Mr. Carter talked about Mrs. Sprague.
I knew that this was affecting Tom and his relationship with her.
Mrs. Sprague was a caring, dedicated teacher, but she was easily flustered.
I could see how it would be difficult for her to establish a positive rapport with a boy like Tom. He was constantly disdainful toward her and I knew it was coming from his father.
In a larger school I’d have had more options, perhaps a classroom transfer. But Mrs. Sprague had the only Grade 5/6 class in the school.
There was nowhere for Tom to go.
It wasn’t long before Tom was sitting in my office again. It was time for reinforcements. I had to convene the “100 thousand dollar meeting”.
We all sat in the staff room because my office was not large enough for us all: Mr. Carter, myself, Mrs. Sprague, the P. E. Teacher, the Learning Assistance teacher, the District Psychologist and the District Principal.
I felt like this was a huge waste of time and money. The problem was Mr. Carter, clear and simple. But then the question was, how do you solve the problem?
For me, the problem was easily solved. Tom had to be removed from Mrs. Sprague’s class. That meant an indefinite suspension.
But the District Psychologist suggested that Tom have a desk in my office and I act as a go between so that Tom and Mrs. Sprague would have no contact.
I looked at her in total disbelief as she shared her solution.
“So what message are we giving Tom in this kind of arrangement?” I asked.
“Well, it will prevent further friction between Tom and his teacher,” she said.
“So what message are we giving Tom in this kind of arrangement?” I repeated.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
I looked around the room, then directly at Mr. Carter.
“It’s simple,” I said. “We are saying that Mrs. Sprague is part of the problem. She is not part of the problem. Mr. Carter here speaks very abusively about Mrs. Sprague and Tom is merely mimicking his father.”
I could hardly believe that I had actually said this.
The room was silent.
Mr. Carter stood up and said, “I’m taking Tom out of this @#$! School!” He walked out of the staff room, slamming the door behind him.
Problem solved, for us, perhaps, but not for Tom.
I felt sorry for Tom. I believed his father was mentally abusing his son, but filing a complaint with Social Services would have been futile.
About a week later, I was playing racquetball with one of my colleagues, Raj Kapur. He was a Grade 6 teacher at Elk Creek Elementary School, just outside town.
After the game he turned to me and said, “Just got a new student. Word has it, you kicked him out of your school.”
“Let’s have a beer, and I’ll tell you the whole story,” I said with a smile.
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Photo: Getty Images
The Rebel, Part 2
As you might recall from Part 1, Tom Carter had been sent to my office because he threw scissors at his teacher. Unable to reach his father, I sent him home with a letter of suspension.
I would have to meet with his father in order for Tom to return to school. There was no mother in the picture.
Mr. Carter sat across from me in the “hundred thousand dollar meeting,” as it was called in those days.
We were joined by Tom’s teacher, Mrs. Sprague, the PE teacher, the Learning Assistance Teacher, the District Psychologist, and the District Principal.
Our school was too small to have its own School Counsellor.
Our task was to solve the present problem. Unfortunately, the problem was sitting right in front of me. He had reddish, brown hair, slightly receding, and wore a kind of lumberjack shirt covered in wood shavings.
I wanted, badly, to stand up and confront Mr. Carter and tell him:
- that he’d been poisoning his son’s mind against his teacher;
- that he’d influenced his son to have absolutely no respect whatever for females;
- that he’d purposely brainwashed his son into viewing females, particularly his teacher, with derision.
I held my tongue.
The day after I had sent Tom home, Mr. Carter had come into the school gunning for his teacher, Mrs. Sprague.
I was sitting in my office reading my morning mail when I heard an explosive crash.
Mr. Carter, apparently, had kicked the school office door as he entered.
“Where the &%#@ is Mrs. Sprague?” he screamed at my secretary.
“Ah, you must be Mr. Carter,” I said calmly.
He looked over at me as I stood in my adjoining office doorway.
“Yeah! Who the &%#@ are you?"
“I’m Mr. Knight, the Principal. Come on in. Let’s talk. Do you want a coffee or something?”
I motioned for him to follow me in, which he did to my amazement.
“Coffee?” I asked again.
“Yeah, whatever. Three cream and three sugar.”
He said this loud enough for Lois, my secretary, to hear. She was out the door before he finished his sentence.
I closed the door and breathed an internal sigh of relief. At least Mr. Carter was contained, and I was thinking I should get an Oscar for my performance.
I wanted to kick this &%#@ in the … Well, we’ll stop that thought for now. Where was I?
“So, Mr. Carter, I’m happy to finally meet you. Thanks for coming in.”
Somebody told me once to fight fire with water. I imagined I was soaking Mr. Carter with a two-inch fire hose.
“Why the &%#@ did you send my son home?"
“Did you read the letter? And please watch your language, Mr. Carter.”
“Yes, I read the letter. Tom says Mrs. Sprague is a liar.”
“What do you think?” I asked.
“I think he’s right.”
“Do you really? Do you really think I sent Tom home for no reason at all?”
“Mrs. Sprague is a stupid, &%#@ &%#@!” he screamed.
“Please stop swearing, Mr. Carter, or I’ll have to ask you to leave. Please show some respect for Lois, my secretary, at least.”
“She’s a &%#@ &%#@ as well!”
I stood up. I could feel the ghosts of the past cheering me on.
“I’m afraid this meeting is over. Please leave the school premises,” I said as calmly as possible under the circumstances.
“What the &%#@ are you going to do, throw me out?” he asked with a chuckle.
“No. I’ll just call the police.”
“Alright, alright,” he said with a patronizing smile. “I get your message.”
I could feel myself sitting back down. I still wanted to kick him out, but I thought I might be getting somewhere.
“So, what’s my little Tom done now?”
Mr. Carter’s change in demeanor was unsettling. It even had a slight suggestion of charm. I was being manipulated. Or was I now talking to the proverbial Dr. Jekyll?
I looked at Mr. Carter squarely and said, “I believe Mrs. Sprague because I asked several of her students if they saw the incident. They all did, and why would Mrs. Sprague lie about this anyway?”
“What are their names?”
“I can’t tell you that, Mr. Carter.” I paused slightly and took a breath.
“Look, Mr. Carter, the situation concerning Tom and Mrs. Sprague is deteriorating. I have observed Mrs. Sprague’s teaching and I am confident that she is a competent teacher. I have had numerous dealings with Tom, and he is, to put it bluntly, defiant.”
Mr. Carter gave me that same, scornful smile Tom had given me a few days ago. I could feel my blood actually boiling.
Now. I knew the true meaning of seeing red. I bit down very hard on my tongue and counted to 10. I imagined Mr. Carter had spent many hours talking to his own Principal a few decades back.
“Unless we see some radical changes in Tom’s behaviour, I’m going to have to suspend him from school indefinitely.”
Mr. Carter’s eyes began to turn red just as Lois came bouncing through my door with two cups of coffee.
… to be continued.