Thursday, January 3, 2013

Facts on the ground

One of my daughters had a teacher who would put one student’s name in an envelope each day. That student was the “Mystery Person.” At the end of the day, the teacher would open the envelope, and if the Mystery Person had been well behaved, he or she would get some special reward—a sticker or certificate or something. If not, the Mystery Person would get nothing, and the teacher would put the name back without revealing who it was. Sometimes, during the day, if the class was becoming unruly, she would say, ominously, “The Mystery Person is being watched.”

I happened to like a lot of things about that teacher, and I know she was not the only one to employ the Mystery Person technique. But I found the Mystery Person thing more than a little creepy, especially in light of all the other ways in which the school seems to be acclimating kids to life in an authoritarian culture. (I happened to think of it again after reading the news a few days ago.)

I don’t mean this blog to be of only local interest. I’m sure I would have much more comfortable relationships with our local school personnel if I just stuck to blogging about education issues in a more general way. But so many discussions of education—the policy proposals, the statistical analyses, the economic arguments, all the talk about “school reform” and “accountability” and “increasing achievement”—strike me as hopelessly removed from what actually happens between actual human beings in actual schools. It’s as if we’ve all tacitly agreed to avert our eyes from what’s right in front of us. If I didn’t occasionally describe the lunchroom whistles and the Dairy Queen attendance prizes and the silent single-file hallway lines and the Orwellian “Mystery People,” there would be little point in writing the blog.


PsychMom said...

You are doing a marvellous blogging job so far Chris. It's lame I know, but I've made the promise to read your blog everyday this month, taking every ounce of inspiration I can get to try and get to a mental state where I too can begin a blog.

Re you post today. I think the school habit is so ubiquitous in our culture, that many parents seldom even think about what happens to their child once they drop them off in the morning. That's why homeschooling just throws people off...they just never think of anything else but industialized schooling.

And at school too, the carrot and stick techniques are so ingrained that even the most dedicated teachers fall into them so easily. Human beings are hard to change and fall easily into routines.

It takes energy and focus and drive to do something different, and those qualities are sadly lacking in our society at present.

Karen W said...

I think anecdotes can be powerful--and I'm glad you share them here. Otherwise it is easy to think (pretend?) it can't really be that bad.

When I hear the behavior management stories, I try to remember if my teachers did anything like what is being described in the story but usually they didn't. I think there was just some sort of culture at work at school that made discipline less of an issue than it appears to be now. So, yes, seems a little creepy to me too.

Doris said...

I agree with Karen W. Those of us who teach writing know that a reasonably judicious use of examples is typically necessary to give the broader generalizations any real persuasive power.

I talked with my children about my decision to start commenting on this blog, and we set up some ground rules. My older daughter actually encouraged me to write about her experiences as a disabled student in the public schools because she felt that when she was there other people (mostly children, but sometimes parents or even teachers) often didn't really understand what it felt like to be in her shoes. She has a lot of auditory processing challenges, for example, and so misses out on much of what gets said. As a result, frequently she would fail to follow directions or oblige requests, and not infrequently she was accused (mostly by other children) of misbehaving or being "mean." I would like parents whose children do not have auditory processing problems to take her experience into account when they talk with their children about other children at school who "misbehave." The situation might be more complicated than it might appear.

As for the fact that occasionally local teachers or other staff members are implicated in the anecdotes, sometimes that just cannot be avoided. I think that other parents who are considering ADHD meds for their children, to cite another example, might benefit from knowing about our experience with the aborted trial run. We're talking about a decision whether or not to give young, still-growing children very powerful drugs. No teachers worth their salt should prefer to protect their reputations rather than to have a relevant experience shared so that other parents and teachers can perhaps benefit. Goodness knows my former students write all sorts of comments about me online--and they typically get to remain anonymous even though I don't. Sometimes it feels unfair, but if the students perceive that they benefit from being able to see uncensored commentary, then that's the price I have to pay to remain in my job.

Parents make plenty of mistakes, but teachers and staff do, too. No good purpose is served by pretending otherwise. My kids asked me a few days ago whether once again I would make a New Year's resolution to be more patient--and they expressed hope that maybe this time out I might have better success. Ha. We won't be perfect in our interactions with children, but we can at least own up to our failures and apologize. That's all I would ask of a teacher.

The bottom line is that public education is a huge political football right now, and citizens have not just a right but also a responsibility to jump in and debate the issues. Sometimes our most powerful examples will be drawn from personal experience. I would encourage you to continue to incorporate anecdotes on occasion. It is often those posts that draw the most response.

LAB said...

Whatever happened to those hippie-ish teachers who valued individuality and fun? Now teachers all seem like lady cops. The teachers I had as a kid would never have done this sinister "Mystery Person" thing. Nobody was expected to be perfect in my elementary school. If you couldn't stop laughing or if you were talking too much in class, you might have to sit in the hall for five minutes. That was about it. We were all considered "good" as far as I knew. Nowadays, kids absolutely know which students in their class are "less" in the eyes of the teacher, because those kids are continually called out, have their color moved, lose recess, etc., day after day. It's appalling. Orwellian is the right word for it.

VickyS said...

Teachers turned cops is a natural consequence of PBIS-type environments. PBIS is data-driven. Especially in the early years, data along many axes, some important and some not so important (tardies, late homework, inattention, insubordination, office discipline referrals, etc.) are collected in order to tailor the PBIS implementation to the particular school. Teachers who fail to log a sufficient number of incidents risk being considered as not on board, so all teachers, if they value their jobs, pretty much have to comply.

I'm not sure this has much to do with the "Mystery Person" construct, but it does speak to the deterioration in the relationship between students and teachers.

As for anecdotes, they are powerful and deserve attention. Much of the problem with edubabble is that it is never connected to real situations. I'll never forget how whipped my child felt in an overdisciplined school. Elementary students were punished if they so much as took their hands off the railing when walking up the stairs. One day we walked into a different school that we were considering switching to and he immediately fell into a two person line behind me. I encouraged him to walk by my side. He was incredulous that this should be allowed during a school day.

Chris said...

If the Blogathon does nothing but get PsychMom to start blogging, it will have been more than worth it.

I agree, PsychMom, that these little things add up in a way that makes it almost hard to notice it happening. But I also agree with Karen and LAB that things are different than they used to be. No one's requiring teachers to do the Mystery Person thing, but they are expected to meet certain goals, and they're naturally going to do what it takes to satisfy their employers. I think No Child Left Behind, to a large degree, is responsible for the fact that we're seeing more of this heavy-handed behavior management than we used to.

Doris -- I agree completely -- nobody's perfect and everyone makes mistakes and has off days, so I do think it's possible to go too far in criticizing particular instances of things that happen at school. I think it's important to confine it to anecdotes that reflect real policies and larger trends.

LAB -- Good question. I'm with you: I don't remember nearly as much of this behaviorist/discipline stuff when I was young as I see in schools now. I would guess it has to do with the fact that teachers don't have the autonomy, or the job security, or for that matter the seniority, that they used to have.

Chris said...

Vicky -- I would think it must also be causing a deterioration of the relationship between teachers and parents. It's not the teachers' fault that these policy changes are being foisted on them, but they are nonetheless the public face of the school to most parents, so they're going to take the heat when parents don't like what they see, which seems inevitable now that school policy seems more and more dictated from above. I don't envy the position of the teachers, but I think parents raising hell is the only way that things will ever change.

Heard the phrase "data idolatry" recently to describe today's educational establishment -- seems right on the mark.

That story about your son is simultaneously depressing and perfectly unsurprising.

VickyS said...

Too often, parents age out of the system, battered and spent. You figure out how bad it is when your child is in about 2nd or 3rd grade. You fight like the dickens all through elementary school. Then your children get to middle school and by that time, you know enough to try to select one that is the lesser of evils. By the time the kids get to high school, you just hold your nose and wait for them to get out of the system once and for all. The educrats know this and depend on it; they throw you a bone now and then but only in rare instances can local parents turn the tide.

That sounds depressing and if I thought that was the end of it, I would have stopped paying attention long ago. But, I think there is hope if we start cultivating non-parent allies. Why aren't those teachers banding with the parents? Why aren't the teachers' unions speaking up? Why aren't other parts of society complaining about the hijacking of all our schools of education? Why do foundations continue to support failed policies? Has the educational establishment really become a permanent bureauracy, impervious to change or criticism? Can we work within it, or do we need to work outside of it? I wish I knew!

Chris said...

Vicky -- I agree that teachers' unions ought to be a valuable ally, and to some extent they already are (though I don't hear much from them at the local level here). I suspect there is more mileage in pointing out the effects of "reform" on teachers than in pointing out its effect on kids, which is kind of a sad statement.

KD said...

The mystery person technique sounds very creepy.

It is baffling that this would be considered a legitimate technique for managing behavior.

Chris said...

KD -- The scarier thing is, I don't the Mystery Person thing stands out at all from the school's point of view. Just one more good trick to get compliance.