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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Screwing students

Old Moline High School sat on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River

I went to the old school.  Therefore, I am not acquainted with the relationships that now exist between students and teachers.  When I read of teachers getting into trouble for screwing students, I cannot relate to any circumstances where such a relationship could develop.  In my time in school, the mentoring role of  teachers was stringently clear to both students and teachers.  It was amiable but not familiar.

That relationship existed long after students had graduated and became community leaders.  I recall a case in point.  Moline High School had a series of women who headed the English faculty who could quell a riot with one withering look.  One, who I never had as a teacher, was Ella Cockrell.   Another was Barbara Garst, who I had for literature class and who directed the Shakespearean plays.  

When I was a student, the district school superintendent's office was located with the other administrative offices  in the high school.  One morning as I entered school and was sauntering down the hall, Ella Cockrell's stentorian voice boomed through the hallway, "Just a minute there, young man, I want to talk to you."  Every  male student in the hallway at the time froze in his tracks.  But she wasn't calling to a student.  She had spotted the president of the school board coming to the offices to confer with the school superintendent.  She approached him shaking her finger and citing something he had said at a school board meeting the previous night, correcting an error she found.  She said, "Can you get that straightened out, please?"  He said, "Yes, Miss Cockrell," and quickly slipped into the superintendent's office.

Moline was a factory town that operated on a class system--industrialists and working people.  The managing class ran the town, including the school system, and expected privileges and deference.  The teachers played along, but they also gave powerful acknowledgment, encouragement, and direction to students from the working class.  A majority of my classmates who came from working class families went on to college.  The teachers made clear that while sometimes they had to treat the privileged children with deference, they had high expectations from all their students and treated them all with the same considerations.  They maintained a certain detachment from their students, but were intense and outgoing about their expectations.  In their support and work with working class kids, there was a near-subversive intensity. 

 As I was leaving civics class one day, the teacher, Miss Day, stopped and asked to talk a minute.  She said I really should consider her alma mater, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois,  (Carl Sandburg's hometown) as a place to continue my education.   The only real thought I could give to college was that I did not have the money to go.  But her talk with me made me start thinking seriously about doing something definite in regard to college.  I ended up enrolling at Augustana in Rock Island, to which I walked, and scraped up tuition through work in the stock room of a department store.  Knowing that my teachers had an interest in my future was a tremendous motivation. 

I had many contemporaries, including a spouse, who became teachers.  The circumspect relationships that I had experienced with teachers seemed to govern their conduct.  I never heard of them even considering any kind of non-professional relationship, let along a sexual liaison, with a student.  Consequently,  I am puzzled by the many accounts I hear of such carrying on.  In South Dakota, a teacher last year was arrested after a deep involvement with a 13-year-old.  I also read a strange account of a man who had been the golf coach at Moline High School.   A young woman had a story printed in her college paper that told of a sordid relationship with her former high school band director.  The incidents involving teachers of both sexes abound.

Something is going on in schools between teachers and students that seems to be symptomatic of the many concerns about our schools. I am puzzled about these matters because they lie far outside my experience, which includes a time when I was involved in the newspaper coverage of 12 school districts.  The Displaced Plainsman has a post on a book I have read and heard much about which offers a clue about where schools appear to be breaking down.  A passage he reproduces describes something that some teachers are engaged in:  

What role do teachers play in popularity? What are the "teacher cliques" that you describe in the book?
That was one of the biggest surprises for me -- the adults who are supposed to be modeling social behavior for students are in some cases openly forming their own cliques, with names. That blew my mind. Even schools where they're paying thousands of dollars to sponsor anti-bullying programs and trying to ease social tension among the student body -- these same schools have teacher clique issues that they're not addressing. There was one teacher clique called Teachers Against Dumbasses. They actually go around wearing T-shirts advertising their clique! The students are aware of which teachers are allied with others. They hear teachers grumbling; they know when teachers are dating each other. Even worse, often the teachers are making associations and judgments and in some cases explicit descriptions about students based on their labels. You can't expect students to know what appropriate social behavior is when the teachers aren't following that model themselves.
This matter of teachers emulating the society of students is something I have noticed when I stop to think about it.  In the 20 years I was a director of the Dakota Writing Project, which worked with teachers from K through G, I recall some conversations with other directors about the behavior of some teachers at our institutes who appeared to be living as adolescents at times. There was a cliquishness among some of them that was hard to reconcile with their roles as educators.  And I was aware of some cases where teachers seemed to be in competition with students for social standing.  Some teachers claimed great popularity with their students as evidence of their level of performance, and while I thought those claims were a bit juvenile, it did not occur to me that they reflected a way in which teachers were relating with their students.  However, when I read accounts of female teachers in sexual relationships with boys in their early teens, there seems to be an effort to recapture their own early adolescence in those relationships.  I don't know.  I admit a squeamishness even in thinking about such circumstances.

Through my own children, I know that the school experience is traumatic for many.  I am aware that the No Child Left Behind efforts has produced A Lot of Kids Left Out.  I have increasingly thought that the destructive cliquishness of students is modeled on what the kids see in adult society.  That destructive impulse is evident in the nature of the political meanness that shows up on blogs.  

With some nostalgia, I recall the fear and the respect that a stern look from Miss Cockrell or Miss Garst could inspire.  My old high school building has stood empty for a few decades but is now being converted into loft apartments.   But when I think of those school days, I recall not being terribly excited about school, but finding it a vital place to learn about getting on with other kids.  The teachers set the standard of conduct and clearly defined the limits of behavior they would tolerate from students.

I like to imagine that the spirit of Miss Cockrell still walks through the halls, calling out "Just a minute there, young man."  I think she may still have a lot to tell us about how to educate. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States