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My Special Education: Spare the Rod and Discard the Student

Ruben Navarrette, Jr. is an author, lecturer, and senior fellow of the Washington-based organization, One Nation Indivisible

I recently spent four weeks as a long-term substitute teacher at a junior high school in a poor San Joaquin Valley town. In my charge were several dozen Mexican and Mexican American “special education” students.

Since the school district does not retain students with genuine learning disabilities, “special education” means young people with discipline and/or behavioral problems. Years ago, they were tested, fared poorly and placed on a special-education track, on which they likely will remain throughout high school. These are the throwaway kids whom no one wants to teach. Yet, in four weeks, they gave me a lesson.

Since the 1983 decree that, due to the poor condition of many public schools, ours was a “Nation At Risk,” educators, politicians, and parents have responded with everything from resignation to outrage to paralysis.

Now, in the 1990s, education reform has become the newest cause celebre for liberal and conservative alike. One side advocates increased school funding, greater support for teachers’ unions and a stronger commitment from government. The other prefers divestiture in the form of abolishing the federal Department of Education and issuing vouchers and “opportunity scholarships.”

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Recent policy initiatives aimed at improving education include Gov. Pete Wilson’s efforts to reduce class size to 20 students at the K-3 level, and President Bill Clinton’s plan to recruit, as part of his America Reads initiative, college students to serve as literacy tutors in federally subsidized work-study programs.

A tour of duty on the front lines, however, shows just how futile any or all of these measures may ultimately be without first addressing the vital relationship between teachers and students. Simply put, students cannot learn if teachers cannot teach. And teachers cannot teach without first establishing, and then preserving on a daily basis, their authority in the classroom.

Since the elimination of corporal punishment and the onslaught of school-related lawsuits, most students know, some as early as elementary school, what their teachers can and cannot do to discipline them. They also know exactly what they can get away with.

In the best scenario, students and teachers enjoy a pleasant and productive experience based on mutual respect. In the worst, every day is a game, a contest, even a battle between opposing forces: teachers trying to teach, maintain order and assert authority, and students, particularly adolescents, resorting to petty torments, disobedience and even threats to deny their teachers this authority.

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At my school, it seemed like war. Teachers of mainstream students who consider their classes demilitarized zones might consider what those classes would be like if they were suddenly reinfested with kids who have been weeded out, tracked out and dumped into special-education classes.

Part of the problem is natural. Many children and adolescents have little fondness for rules or those who enforce them. So accustomed are many of them to talking their own way, acting their own way, dressing their own way and generally having their own way in schools that, when confronted with rules and discipline, they rebel.

At a school where students regularly talk back to, disobey and threaten teachers, many of whom have given up the fight, I acquired a reputation for zero tolerance. My students deemed me an exception, and not a good one. Their daily objective was to get away with as much as possible. When I thwarted them, their responses ranged from anger to resentment to depression.

One student, who fancied himself a thug, had mastered long division but had difficulty grasping the student-teacher dynamic. One day, after a face-to-face shouting match with me (which is not encouraged by the teachers’ handbook), he broke into tears. And while that was not an especially glorious moment, it was, for the ultimate good of the student, a necessary one.

In the gradual process of gaining respect for authority, many of these students begin at an awesome disadvantage. My own parents were raised with a stern hand at home and ordered to treat their teachers with the same level of respect or suffer my grandparents’ wrath. My parents did me the same favor. Once upon a time, there was no mistaking who was the parent and who the child. No longer.

Accustomed to running their home life, students expect to run their school life as well. The continuum of respect for authority that once guided children from home to school and back again has been shattered. A single mother complained to me recently that her teenage son was earning D’s and F’s in high school and that he cared only about performing in the school’s dance troupe. My solution: Deny him the dancing. That, she agreed, might work. If only, she said, the school would prohibit him from participating in dance unless his grades improved. Afraid to be the villain, she lacked the nerve to exercise what she agreed was probably the only leverage she had over her son. She instead expected school administrators to do her dirty work for her.

The solution may lie in state legislatures reinstating some kind of corporal punishment or school boards finding ways to hold parents financially accountable for their children’s misbehavior. It may lie with the individual parents and teachers and school administrators. Or it may lie in the past, in a set of values that we have been so anxious to leave behind.

On my last day at the front, a Latino teacher who had put in 14 years offered up this gem. What these students needed, I suggested to him, were rules, order, discipline and a renewed respect for authority.

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“What these kids need,” he corrected me, “is a spanking.”


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