Friday, October 14, 2011

Why I Agree That Our School System Results in Teachers Hurting Children

Most high school students find school boring and irrelevant
In her popular post, What Parents Really Want to Tell Teachers: What You Do Hurts Our Children, parenting expert Laurie A. Couture compiled a list of concerns for teachers to consider in the context of their own education. I shared her post here on The Innovative Educator blog and while it was met with some support, in many cases it was met with hostile criticism from teachers who felt attacked.

Couture’s post was in response to Ron Clark’s article What Teachers Really Want to Tell Parents. While she was criticized for using generalities, her post was directed toward those teachers who believe parents need to head Clark's advice. There were teachers who were upset that I would publish a piece like this on my blog. Unfortunately, some followers even unsubscribed. Despite this, I shared Laurie’s concerns for two reasons.
  1. Laurie is connected with many parents whose children have been hurt by what teachers are compelled to do in our educational system. She does a good job representing why parents have issues with teachers such as these. Her son, who was one such child, does a good job as well. You can read his response to Ron Clark here.
  2. I agree with Laurie’s concerns, her advice, as well as the observation she shares with John Taylor Gatto: Most teachers are working in a system that is forcing them to hurt children. I have worked in the public school system for many years and have found that every school has teachers and/or administrators that could benefit from her advice because much of what they are being told to do in the name of kids is detrimental.

I suggest we learn from Laurie’s advice and shift focus to look at the type of teacher the system is breeding. While I understand many teachers who read this blog are not the ones that engage in these actions,we know these are the actions the system we are a part of breeds and rewards. If we really want to help children, we must help ensure they are no longer treated this way. Laurie's concerns are worth considering in making a change where we teach. 

To follow, in two parts, I am sharing my thoughts about why I agree with these concerns and am also providing a call to action. Below is the response to her first five points. In part two I will share my reaction to her last five points.

1. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
  • My thoughts: We are so afraid that teachers are going to suddenly become child molesters if they have true connected relationships with students, that we demand they be treated as subjects rather than people. Contact outside of school is frown upon in most places including contact using digital media. If we are so afraid that a teacher who develops relationships with their studentst will engage in inappropriate conduct, we must deal with that teacher, not make blanket policies that do not serve children best.
  • Call to action: Connect with your students and develop relationships inside and outside of school. Publicize the wonderful connections you make with kids by writing about it, celebrating it and ask your kids to do the same. Showcase how doing so can enrich each of your lives.
2. Respect the student’s basic human body functions
  • My thoughts: If we are not respecting children and fostering their independence then we are not allowing children to develop the vital trust of and connection with self needed to be healthy and happy.
    • Food: When I started teaching I found it odd that eating and drinking was so regulated. This didn’t work for me. I like to have a beverage with me at all times and I like to have snacks around when I am hungry. In many schools lunch times are ridiculous with some kids having lunch at 10 a.m. and others at 2. I fought to deregulate the food rules in my school. Kids and adults could eat and drink as they pleased. They cleaned up after themselves and if something was inadvertenly left behind, students helped me clean up at the end of the period.
    • Drinks: I will never forget being in first grade and feeling like I was literally dying of thirst. The teacher didn’t want me to leave because it would disrupt her lesson. I begged a few more times and was told no. So, I told her I had to go to the bathroom really bad and might have an accident. She let me go. I ran to the water fountain and started to drink when a classmate came running after me telling me to get back to class. The teacher sent him out to check that I wasn’t lying about the bathroom. When I got home that night I had 104 fever. I had been sick in class but the teacher, so focused on her lesson, hadn’t bothered seeing me as more than a mere distraction. In most schools I do not witness teachers trusting children to eat and drink when they please.
    • Bathroom: One of my favorite educators recently told me the story of his son peeing in his pants because he didn’t want to make the teacher mad by asking to go to the bathroom. I too have witnessed teachers getting mad at students for asking to leave. On a personal note I have a close family member who was diagnosed with Crohns disease at the end of high school. She did not feel comfortable moving on to college for fear that her teachers would not allow her to leave if she needed to use the restroom or understand if she had to arrive late due to stomach problems.
  • Call to action: Show your children respect by allowing them to make decisions about eating, drinking, and using the restroom. This may require fighting a bureaucratic system. Do it. Get your kids involved. This also might necessitate deeper discussions about food, nutrition, and health. Bonus!
3. Think carefully before assigning labels
  • My thoughts: I have written extensively on the “disease” that hits most close to home for me personally and in public schools, ADD / ADHD. I have connected with numerous medical professionals, educators, and parents who have learned that discovering and addressing the child’s true needs most always alleviates the need to drug children. I have been labeled as ADD/ADHD. So has Aaron Iba. Thank goodness neither of us succumbed to being drugged into compliance. Many labels such as these would be unnecessary if we saw everyone as having optimum environments for learning and enabled them to function in these environments.
  • Call to action: Every single student has special needs and I don’t mean that in the cheesy, feel good way some people talk about kids with labels. Connect with children and their parents to find out what their special needs are. Work hard to honor and respect the special needs of all your children. Consider fixing your children's learning environment before fixing and/or drugging children. Allow children to have multiple options and alternatives and empower them with the independence to figure out how to learn in the best way possible.
4. Understand, respect, and value the importance of play
  • My thoughts: Teachers know that children need play yet they often blindly follow authority when they are required to rob children of this important need. This is done through reducing the amount of time children have for recess, stealing their time after school with homework, eliminating or greatly reducing play from the days of children in early elementary and putting test prep / academics in its place. Our society knows this is a big contributing factor to the childhood obesity problem and is also linked to depression yet most teachers comply to the demands of a test prep obsessed system.
  • Call to action: Close your door. Put up a curtain in your window if necessary. Give your children free time EVERY day. Watch them. See what they love. See who they are when you aren’t telling them what to do. Know that you are not slacking, but instead giving your students something very valuable to their development.
5. Consider the research when it comes to homework that robs children of time with family, friends, play, exercise and exploration of passions
  • My thoughts: The amount of homework has increased dramatically in recent years. Children are left with less time to explore their own passions because they are forced to do work they often do not care about. The time when there is daylight after school that was once used for play is often taken up with homework today. We need to release children’s hold from the curriculum when they leave school and provide them with the necessary time they need to be with friends and family, explore passions, and play.
  • Call to action: Homework can be a suggestion rather than forced. Provide time during the day for students to do the work you would normally assign as homework. Those who have done it in advance, have free time. Those who couldn’t do it, get your support. Those who have not done it have time to do it.
Public school teachers see much of this occurring in our schools and we know it is not best for children. We must stop following orders and start taking actions. As a teacher what actions will you take? As a parent what actions will you demand of your child’s school?


  1. The issue of play and homework are so important and often ignored. Teachers assign homework because it is what is expected; they eliminate play so we can teach children how to fill in bubbles on a test sheet. These problems don't come directly from the teachers but from the district, state, and national level. Yet, the teachers have the best chance to change these practices. By doing what is right and showing that it works, will eventually force the bigger fish to change expected practices.

  2. Personally, I find this post far more helpful and constructive than Laurie's guest post on your site, which came off (to me) as highly accusatory and offensive. The way to create meaningful and lasting change is not by shaming and criticizing people--that shouldn't be happening in our classrooms to our students, and it shouldn't be happening to teachers, either.

    What you've done through this post is empower teachers to fix injustices in the system. The tone is encouraging and respectful. Your message is the same as Laurie's, but the impact will probably be much different. The calls to action are truly inspiring.

    While I have a feeling you'll still get some flack over the practicality of some of your suggestions (notably, putting up a curtain in the classroom so admin doesn't see you allowing children to play, which could result in termination for some teachers), I think your suggestions as a whole are reasonable and sound. Every teacher can relate to and try out at least one call to action you've made.

    Thanks for sharing this and moving the debate in a really healthy, positive direction.

  3. @Reidun, I agree!
    @Angela, that is really helpful feedback. Also, I think perhaps I have a different suggestion to the curtain. Maybe, instead, document and celebrate all that is learned by, with , and from children when we let them play. If you get a letter in your file, create a counter letter with evidence. Now that would be really fun, effective, and perhaps shift some thinking!!!

  4. Quite a bit of this is actually pretty helpful and I would challenge you to get more specific, to see this through to where you could apply it to different levels, from the Pre-K level to senior year of high school, especially since there are fundamental differences in both the students themselves as well as the structure of their schools' days (and it depends on the school. I've taught on block and on a 45-minute period. Personally, I prefer block because I felt less rushed).

    I would think of rephrasing point 3. Having attended more IEP and 504 meetings than I remember, and having taught collaborative/inclusion classes for four years now, I don't see the "labels" as you call them as something slapped on a kid. In fact, I see those "labels" as a step toward changing the students' learning environments.

    If you have a student with a "label" and it allows for accommodations that can help them be more comfortable in a classroom of 25 other students, why take that away? I have worked with plenty of students who benefited significantly from services and I think that had they not been "labeled" and therefore had accommodations they would have gotten lost in the system.

    As for eating/drinking/bathroom? I think the only thing I have ever gotten uptight about has been food because of ants and more recently, cockroaches. Yeah. No food in the classroom for that reason. And btw, I'm usually the one holding it for 45 minutes at a time, not them.

  5. @Tom,
    Some good points. I'd like to throw it back atcha, and invite you to think of some specifics that I can share as a guest post.

    As far as the pass on that. Come on!!!! The school needs to deal with pest infestation. There are ways kids can package their food in baggies so that it is not an issue. If you do some research, you'll actually find it is water that pests are most attracted to. Anyhow. I worked in a school with a rat infestation. My kids sat on the back seats of their chairs with their feet off the ground.

    Is this okay? NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!
    We can't just accept infestations of rodents and pests. Do you seriously think pest infestation should be guiding your choices for children???

    The answer isn't to make kids suffer! It is to get the schools to handle their infestation issues. Come on!

  6. Oh, I could talk for hours about issues with pests, broken HVAC systems, leaking ceilings, etc. I'm not even that crazy about it in class and I take more of a "please be mindful" approach, if anything. I have found that focusing on minutiae like that is counter-productive to a good atmosphere anyway. Like strict cell phone policies ... isn't it easier to ask a student to put a phone away than forcing them to confiscate it as if I work for the TSA (how do their phones get a signal in my classroom anyway ... I can never get one)?

    A lot of times, I think some of these classroom rules come as a result of badgering from higher-ups about things that totally should not be so "important" and what happens is that teachers get so worn down that they give up and create strict classroom rules because they don't want to get nagged about ... oh, I don't know, everyone being on task in a computer lab at every second of the class, or something.

    Okay, so applying a couple of points to high school ...

    A definite yes on the homework. This sounds like I'm jesting, but I always found study halls valuable when I was in school because I got a ton of work done. The school where I went had a built-in extra help period with an extra bus run (it was 30 minutes at the end of the day and you could stay with a teacher or go to a club meeting). It was a great resource for any student who needed it and was used often. When I started teaching and the schools I taught at didn't have this, I was kind of surprised. I think budget was the issue for the most part. Teachers stayed late anyway but IMHO, buses should be run too and I think that would encourage those students who wouldn't stay because getting a ride is a hassle to stay.

    (continued ... blogger didn't like the full comment)

  7. (and the second part ...)

    And homework should have value to it. In looking at my own classes, I don't assign much, to be honest. When I do, it's something to read for discussion or a paper or project--something substantial that needs extended time. I'm not that into worksheets to begin with and I don't think that I should assign homework for the sake of assigning homework. The students get nothing out of it and then I have to either grade it or track down the missing stuff. It's a hassle on both ends and I am glad that people are starting to take a more measured approach instead of believing that a "certain amount of time" NEEDS to be given (really? Come on ...).

    The question of play at a high school level is a good one. I'll always agree that young students need recess and physical education as well as time in art, music, etc. My son is in pre-K and is lucky to have plenty of play time and I think it helps because four-year-olds have an endless amount of energy that doesn't belong behind a desk.

    As far as high school students go, mine think it's crazy that I had to take four years of PE in order to graduate. Oh yeah. And frankly, I wasn't a jock by any stretch of the imagination (comic book geek, me) but I LOVED PE. Except for square dancing. But I also loved taking journalism, computer graphics, creative writing, psychology, humanities, gourmet cooking (though all I ever did was burn pizza).

    Point being, we might not have "recess" in high school, but the idea of giving students enough courses in which they can "play" is a sound one and needs to be encouraged. Many of my students are part of the tech ed program and they take a lot of pride in their work and I can tell that they truly enjoy what they do. I'm a yearbook adviser and my editors and I have really made an effort to work on teambuilding and "have fun" because we want the staff to feel like they're part of something and that they own what they're working on. I mean, we still have deadlines and work and everything that goes with it, but I like to think of it as working in a "fun office" rather than a class.

    Point is that there's been too much sacrificed in the name of "test scores" and "data," and I think that even in core classes where you are under the testing gun you can still put an emphasis on fun and that might actually lead to the students taking on things more challenging. You're right in the regard that if we can't really make time for recess in the "mandated" school day schedule, we can do it in our classrooms. It could be something as complex as a debate activity that has them all over the room to something as simple as giving them the last five minutes of class to hang out because we finished early today (oh wait, that wouldn't be teaching bell to bell *slaps wrist*).

    This is all ramble-y and probably makes no sense because it's 11:30 on a Friday night (and I have to be up at 7:00 so we can go to the apple festival ... oh who am I kidding, I don't sleep) and it's a comment (I probably exceeded Blogger's limits anyway). But I agree with Angela in saying that I thought your version of this post was much more engaging and thought provoking and way less combative.

  8. I like your post, but... I feel, that trusting and respecting each other is the most important we can do. But it is like.. the teacher has the whole responsibility on what you say. For instance, you mention about feeling so thirsty, and you say your teacher didnt trust in you. If it is me the one in that position, I would trust in you, or maybe not, but if there are many other students, pretending to feel in need of going to the bathroom, and they just invent many reasons to just leave the classroom, then how can I trust in them??, and probably, good students will pay for the bad students.
    I dont have problems with giving permission for the bathroom, I respect their thoughts, I dont give homeworks ( just few times that some taks were not finished, I checked it next time), I respect the time of the students. But if they use all those rights, and then they abuse of them, then the trust is lost, and we all know that it is hard to get it back.
    In the case of the bathroom, my students have 3 emergency times to go out, the 4th one will be negative points for their marks, so in that way, they must really be sure they need to go out.

  9. @Tom, thanks for coming back with more insights. I agree with most of them. Primarily, that choice is at the heart of what we should provide children and learning should be led by the learner, not the system.

  10. @Julian VM
    If someone wants to leave your room why should you force them to stay? They are telling you they are not interested. Why hold them prisoners in your room? Why do you feel the need to control their bodily functions and punish children if they have extra needs?

    Having a will and not wishing to comply with orders imposed, does not mean a student is bad. It could mean they feel what you are doing has no relevance to them. This is the complaint many students have.

    You mention abusing rights. I'm not seeing how these rights can be abused. If we give children the freedom to learn and live in ways that work best for them we build the foundation of trust.

  11. I saw Julain's comment to have to do more about responsibility for one's own actions than anything. If you're teaching high school, you will run across students who want to take advantage of your hospitality on the very first day. Now, you can work with them over the course of the year to build trust, respect, etc., but if they get a bathroom pass and are caught making out with their gf on the other side of the building, shouldn't there be a consequence?

    I'd like to turn the "force them to stay" thing around for a moment. Why is it that when a student wants out of class he can get a bathroom pass or get up and storm out, but when I see that this isn't working for the student and he/she needs a change in his/her environment (i.e., being put in a different class with different people), I am often told how that's not possible and that we'll have to "endure" the year together?

  12. Great post, Lisa! There are so many ways that public school as an institution is dangerous to the holistic well being of children. Reagarding what you wrote about the bathroom issue, sadly, it is not only that children are afraid to use the toilet, they are cruelly and out-rightly denied the right to leave the room to use the toilet. Toilet use is either regimented or denied, which puts children of all ages at risk for urinary tract infections, bladder and kidney damage, epididymitis, bowel impaction and other forms of urinary and bowel dysfunction such as the dangerous habit of "holding in" waste. Denying toilet use is a chronic issue that comes up with the children I work with, especially in the middle school and high school grades. I also went through this as a child and my son suffered this form of abuse in school prior to him coming into my life through adoption (I unschool him but he was in public school before I met him).

    When I used to run my former website on overlooked forms of child abuse, I would receive the most email from parents who were reporting their children of all ages (from preschoolers to 18 year olds in 12th grade) were being denied use of the toilet, punished for using the toilet and forced to sit in pain or in severe cases, urinate in their seats or in bottles, trash cans or stairwells. One woman actually physically blocked a 16 year old boy from running out of the room and she forced him to urinate in a soda bottle in the trash can. he had told her multiple times it was an emergency and he needed to use the bathroom and she refused him. The horrifying aspect of that case was the mother reported that the CHILD was punished by the school, not the teacher!

    It was so distressing for me to read these emails that would regularly stack up in my inbox- more emails for this issue than children abused by school teachers with paddling (physical assault with wooden boards). I devoted an entire chapter of my book, Instead of Medicating and Punishing to this human rights violation.

  13. I want to add, Lisa, I appreciate your bravery in writing the post- Like Gatto, you are standing up to the system and calling teachers on their actions, challenging them to refuse to obey a system that is a human rights violation at its core. I know how much defensiveness that can trigger in teachers, but at the same time, it wakes up those few who are ready to hear it. Those are the ones we need to reach! One of the frightening aspects of school is how uncreative children are becoming. There is no time for imagination, creation, fantasy, role play or the arts, which are part of what makes humans unique to other animals. My son and his unschooled and alternatively "educated" friends seem so brilliant, youthful and creative compared to so many of the public school kids I have met and worked with over the years- Children in child-centered learning environments are able to drink up childhood rather than be forced out of it before they are ready. They are able to play all through out, even into college. It is like observing groups of children from two different worlds.

  14. @Laurie: You do realize that 99% of teachers allow their students to use the bathroom, right? No, seriously. I think that by focusing so dramatically on things like this, whatever good might be in your message gets lost ... if you haven't lost teachers who might be listening by accusing them of abusing children.

    We've got bigger and more important things to deal with and discuss than potty time, anyway.

  15. @InnovativeEducator:

    You said "Also, I think perhaps I have a different suggestion to the curtain. Maybe, instead, document and celebrate all that is learned by, with , and from children when we let them play."

    I don't disagree with the curtain thing personally. I always advise teachers to "close your door and do what's best for kids." But you are very right about how play can be documented and that's an even better suggestion!

    For example, I once taught 2nd grade in an inner city school in Miami that had no windows and did not allow recess. (I believe "hellacious" is the best term to describe that experience for both me and the kids, especially on 70 degree December days.)

    My lesson plan book (which was checked daily) had countless instances of indoor and outdoor play recorded, with corresponding state standards, of course! For example, when I taught skip counting, the first ten minutes of the lesson were spent on the blacktop with the kids playing a skip count game similar to duck-duck-goose.

    After a few weeks of proving myself, I convinced the principal to let me take the kids on the school playground for the last ten minutes before lunch if they completed all their work in the morning first. After a few weeks of that, she let me take them out again for the last five minutes of the day, as well. She was reluctant but couldn't deny the fact that my kids were focused and engaged pretty much every time she came in my classroom, and since we didn't waste instructional time with management and behavioral issues, we had the time to spare.

    Teachers do have power to subvert the system, more than they realize. The key is to think outside the box about what's possible and find something that works for your class. The solution may not work for all teachers, and that's okay. Change starts with individuals. :-)

  16. Wow, loved your comments, wish I could get more teachers to realize that by allowing students time to play you can learn so much about them. I enjoyed reading this article. Thanks for taking the time to write your thoughts down.

  17. @innovativeeducator
    If you knew my students you would understand when I talk about abusing the right they have. I work with teenagers (which is different from working with children) And I know when my students want to go bathroom and when they "say" they want bathroom. I dont have problems with giving permission. But some really abused from that.
    If you have a break after 1:30 hours, is it possible to feel going bathroom during class time? yes. But.. every class, every day, every week?? then there is a serious physical problem, or, they just want to go out. Giving freedom is really easy, but when do you teach responsibility? and let's be realistic, teenagers are teenagers, they are just growing up and most of them are still immature. I talk based on my students, in my reality in my country.
    Finally, there are many things we dont like to do, but we must do them. Studying must be boring for a lot of students, probably, but just few times I have seen students giving ideas, and taking the responsibility in the things they want to do.
    I think the rule comes first, then it is responsiblity. We won't be responsible if we don't know what rules to follow.
    And in addition, the students have the right where, what and how to study, but if they choose my school, my class, then they must know there will be rules to follow. The same happens in our daily life, we can do anything in our houses, but if we visit a different house, we have to follow their rules. That is the problem nowadays with some students, they think they are free to do anything they want to do, but they dont respect the place they are.

  18. When you actually try a few years of teaching you might develop something worth listening too, as it is now you are so far from what it is like and so far from a point to be's rather sad.