"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Establishment

When did I become this guy? I used to consider myself a free thinker, an individualist, an anti-establishment nonconformist rebel punk. But I'm not that guy any more. Now I'm the guy who follows the rules, who enforces the rules. The company man. I am the establishment.

This could go any number of directions, but today here's where it's going:

At school there's a "no food in the classrooms" rule. This is such a strict rule this year that the new custodial staff sends emails warning us of roach infestations if we leave food out for the bugs, and I was recently forced to hold a "Lunch with Shakespeare" discussion in the cafeteria during lunch because I ordered pizza for the my group of students.

I try to ask my students to finish their food and beverages before they come to class, and if I see them with food in the room, I kindly ask them to put it away. Of course, this past week, some student group introduced a coffee cart that offers coffee treats before school and during first period. But remember, no food--or drink--is allowed in the classrooms. I'll give you a moment to imagine the conflict this might cause.

There was no coffee available for students when I was in high school.
Why do today's teens need it?

This morning two students entered my room with pastry and coffee in hand. A brother and sister. Twins. One does class work. The other tends not to. I asked them to put the food away, though I wasn't sure where they were going to put the full coffee cups. And with that, one of the other 39 students in my room diverted my attention.

I proceeded with class, and a couple of minutes later I noticed that the brother had the lid off of his hot drink and was otherwise occupied with stirring something into the liquid. When I told him once again--and I'm sure my tone conveyed my exasperation at his blatant disregard for my instructions--that he was not allowed to have the coffee in the classroom, he opted to leave. He said he would just get a pass and take the tardy. I informed him that I would be writing up a referral if he just left class, so he offered to go straight to the Dean's office right then.

If this exchange sounds overly civil as I write this, it's merely my overwhelming disbelief at his decisions. Surely, the dean will not allow him to keep his coffee and behave this way, too. Sometimes a student needs that additional authority figure to show him the error of his ways.

A few more minutes of instruction slipped by, and I happened to stroll by the corner of the room where the sister sits. Her half-eaten pastry and cup of Joe sat in front of her on the table.

Now, I have to admit that I can understand a student's need for sustenance in the morning. And I can understand that three minutes after you just shelled out four or five bucks for a coffee and a roll, the last thing a you need is some curmudgeon telling you you have to get rid of it. You might as well have just tossed the money in the trash. But what I don't understand is when a student in one part of the classroom gets in trouble for an obvious reason, and another student across the room who might well be guilty of the same infraction doesn't immediately renounce said infraction before the teacher notices her as well.

Of course, she had no idea that anything was wrong. In an effort to retain some control of my impatience, I offered to put the cup up on the shelf over her head. What I got back was something like, "Why? What's the difference? It's just on the table. What's the difference? Why?" repeated ad nauseum.

My response: "Because you're not allowed." To be said slowly and as condescendingly as possible, as in "not alllloooowwwwed."

You remember what happens when
you don't follow the rules.
Thankfully for my sanity, she finally acquiesced when I pleaded, "Can't you just once follow the rule?" The pastry disappeared (I'm sure she ate it later as class when on) and the cup of coffee ended up on the upper shelf. (I forgot about it at the end of the class and, really, for the rest of the day. I wonder if it's still there. It's a long weekend coming up....)

Soon after that episode, the brother came back to class with a pass from the Dean's office (not a tardy pass) with written permission from the dean to re-enter class. He had sat in the office until he finished his coffee and then came back to class with nary a consequence.

The dizzying array of insults within this scenario includes the lack of back-up from the administration, the lack of respect from the students, and the fact that no one else seems to notice a conflict of interest by allowing the coffee cart in the first place.

But what bothers me the most is that I have to resort to forceful statements like, "Because you're not allowed," in order to maintain (or regain) control. I don't like being that guy. But here I am. I'm not Matthew Lillard at the end of SLC Punk deciding to go to law school so that he can bring down the establishment from within. (I never did believe that he wouldn't end up just like his dad, anyway.)

Am I nothing more than a trendy poseur?
I'm just a guy doing what I'm told so that I don't lose my job for no reason because they can do that to teachers now. I am as well-ensconced a cog in the machine as anyone ever could be.

And that makes me a little sad.


  1. That's just a silly rule, isn't it?

    I mean, each teacher had his or her own judgement about food in class at my school.

    What about water? Surely you can't keep water from kids. And what about diabetics who need to eat regularly to keep their blood sugar up? Are they given special permission?

    I think my school did it better. It's just silly that kids can't eat. And what if your dead beat parents drop you off too late for breakfast at the cafeteria before class and that coffee cart is all you have? There's no time, where are you going to eat it? Surely the school recognizes that a student will learn better on a full stomach than an empty one. As long as the food isn't distracting anybody, I can't see the harm in it at all.

    Kudos to you for following the rules. Antikudos to the school for making you enforce such a stupid rule. And roaches? Please. If the janitors did their jobs properly, the trash would be taken out daily and the rooms would be clean. There would be no time for roaches.

  2. I sympathise with your predicament, but your bafflement (is that a word?) at how kids, or indeed anyone, can be quite so dense is something you better get used to. Reasonable, rational tolerance is going to get you nowhere.


  3. I didn't even drink coffee ever until I was in college I think... maybe later.

    What the hell is happening to the world?

    I remember the days when I was a straight edge hardcore kid and -

    SHIT! gotta go, my boss is about to walk by my cubicle.

  4. It's so sad that NOTHING is left to a teacher's discretion any more. Talk about demoralization. I understand the need for cleanliness and allergy issues, etc. but there has to be room for common sense as well. How can a teacher expect respect from kids when the admin. doesn't give him/her respect or any authority? I feel for you, dude.

  5. Ah, Brent, the age old conflict of that-place- that-I-will-not-name. The creation of rules that nobody is really willing to enforce. I still contend that fewer hills to die on is the way to go. Hopefully someone who makes the decisions will eventually realize that.
    Truly enjoy your few days away . . .

  6. I remember the jackasses that I went to school with who thought that a "cool" teacher, by definition, was one who let you get away with anything and never enforced any rules. That was a loser attitude, and it's a frankly a loser attitude that they took with them out into the world when they got older. It's the kind of attitude that refuses to accept responsibility, to accept criticism, to learn, to grow up at all.

    Obviously, no one likes to be yelled at, especially as a kid. But if you stick to what you believe in, if you care about your students, and you teach the best you can, then the ones that matter, the ones with sense, the ones you can reach will appreciate it. Even if they don't appreciate now...they will.

  7. @ Chanel: Students are allowed water. It doesn't attract bugs, I guess. But water's just as much a problem because the real problem is that they won't pick up after themselves and they leave bottles and wrappers all over. When I moved into my current room last year, there were mummified apple cores in the corners and on shelves.

    About the bugs, there was a tale that a student must have brought in roaches with them in a backpack. And the only way to get rid of them once and for all is to never let one crumb of food fall to the classroom floor. I guess.

    @ mooderino: I know. I try to be rational and all it gets me is grief. My job is hard.

    @ Kev: If your boss asks, I wasn't here.

    @ Lola: One of the complaints that often arises lately is the lack of professional respect we get as teachers. It's interesting the decisions that do get left to teachers are the ones that I don't think I should have to deal with. I could list a bunch of examples, but maybe that's another four or five blog posts.

    @ Melisa: Yeah, more and more rules isn't helping anyone, teachers or students. But I do find it frustrating when I'm the one doing what I'm supposed to and I'm undermined by another teacher who isn't.

    @ Bryan: I agree with you here, but the difficulty is that in my problem classes it's extremely difficult to tell who those kids are who might pull out of the dunce pack. And the simple reason is that I have nearly 40 kids in that classroom at a time. As I was writing this yesterday, I was thinking about how this incident affected the rest of the class, and I realized that I probably didn't even make eye contact with half of my students during that period. And that of course is what happens every day. I still don't really know some of my students' names. If they weren't in a seating chart I would never recognize some of them.

  8. Also, the troublemakers have a tendency to drag the rest of the class down. Some of the lower level classes I was in were almost nothing but the teacher having to stop to deal with students causing problems. They could barely teach anything at all. One English class in particular had practically no substance whatsoever, because it was nearly impossible to pull together any kind of focus. We studied Macbeth, and to this day, all I remember were some witches and some marching trees. I'm sure, or at least I hope, your classes are a little more civilized than that. But I have to say I liked college much better. A least the students there were paying for the classes, and they chose to be there. That makes a big difference.

  9. Hmm, I'm not sure if I'm making sense or following a coherent line of thought. I'm sorry. I haven't slept yet.

  10. Yeah, there was never coffee available at my high school either. I'm betting they have it now though.

    Where I used to teach, the students were allowed water but nothing else. I used to have a travel mug of hot chocolate I'd bring with me in the mornings but eventually I stopped but I was tired of listening to them whine about not having their own.

  11. People teaching large lecture classes shouldn't have to monitor student behavior.

  12. I'm sure i wouldn't last a day as a teacher. On the other hand, when I picked up the punk and threw him and his stuff out the window the rest of them would behave themselves at least for the rest of the day.

  13. @ Bryan: A teacher spends 90% of his time dealing with 10% of the students. Those stats are made up, but the idea is true. It's like wealth in America.

    There are many days at work when I feel like I did very little. And you made all kinds of sense.

    @ MJ: I don't eat or anything in front of my students either. Not only do they complain that I don't let them eat, but to many of them want to mooch. "Can I have some? Can I have some?"

    @ Paul: I agree. And it's not like my classes are all lecture. Mostly it's group work, and that actually makes behavior monitoring a worse job. But I have yet to be in a school where the administration wants to deal with a student a teacher kicks out just because that student is a general nuisance.

    And yet, everyone in education knows the difference it makes to a classroom when that one student is gone from the mix.

    @ rev: You wanna come into my class and scare them straight one of these days?

    @ shelly: So say we all. And so does Prince.

  14. I love how the student organization is good cop and you're forced to be bad cop because of roaches. I mean, I get the whole no food thing-- kids aren't exactly preoccupied with cleaning up the classroom. But to serve food and coffee and give the kids such limited times to eat it? Ridiculous. I have to ask..did you approach the dean about the whole pass situation?