Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What Would You Do? A Teacher Faces a Moral Dilemma

The kid almost had tears in his eyes and, while I hate to say it, I contributed to that situation. Earlier in the day, I had called this particular student - off task at the time - out in front of the class. I told him to stop wasting his and my time and to start doing his work, and threatened to send him out if he did not straighten up. Later in the day, his biology teacher - my co-teacher - sent him out of the room, and when the student begged to be let back in class, I told him no and shut the door.

Here is where the dilemma comes. When I told this student's counselor that he might want to talk with the student, the counselor shook his head and said: "Poor _____. Just another thing wrong in his life." When I inquired as to what the counselor meant, he said, "Well, ______ is basically the man of the house. He works a job, and is failing in school."

Every teacher - at least, I think every teacher - goes through something like this. We are hard on a student only to find out that the student's "story" is one which tugs at our heartstrings. (I had this happen a few years ago, when I found out that a failing student was, in fact, homeless.) So, what do we do? Do we give the student a possible "break," and ease up a tad, or do we stick to the hard-and-fast rules while ignoring the student's particular story?

In talking with teachers old and new, I find that teachers' newness correlates positively with their tendency to let students' backstories affect how they deal with the student. The more of a veteran you are, the "harder heart" you develop.

Is this a case of teachers becoming desensitized to student backstories? I suppose there is a bit of that, but my guess is that, with experience, teachers become less idealistic and more utilitarian and pragmatic after a while. Let me explain. As any veteran teacher will tell you, one of the keys to success in the classroom is that rules have to not only be established, but enforced and enforced consistently. As with the law, rules need to be administered and applied without respect to persons or context. When exceptions to rules are made, two things result: (a) hordes of students will test the limits of these exceptions; and (b) students will quickly see that rules are negotiable.

While I am familiar with no study done on the subject, I am willing to wager that the trajectory of most teachers careers have them start of as contextualists and end up as absolutists with respect to rules. There is nowhere better than a classroom to learn the lesson that unless rules are rules (without respect to persons or contexts), then they become movable guidelines to be taken advantage of by anyone with a sad story (real or fabricated).

I do feel bad about what happened with the student whom I called out in class. I can imagine his situation and the stress he must be under, being the man of the house while failing his classes. I can even see in his face that he wants to give up very badly. It pains me. But, like a good judge, a good teacher cannot let their feelings get in the way of objectively and fairly enforcing rules. When classwork is assigned, it applies to all and all alike. If we put slack in our rules depending on whether students' circumstances move us, it is as unfair and, I suggest, unethical.

No comments:

Post a Comment