Thursday, July 24, 2014

Open Letter to Senator Penny Wright: Our Violent Schools

Dear Penny Wright

"There is no place for violence in our schools."

That's your quote. Firstly if you can recall having gone to school or taught in one you would know that violence is a subtext everywhere that you have more than one young person thrown together with another. Politically correct fine feelings, modern computers and massive expenditure on amusements like touch- sensitive whiteboards; bombing the kids out with sensory overload as it were hasn't made it any easier for teachers in classrooms nor are we graduating kids who are more numerate, literate, or possessed of the confidence and self-discipline they will need for their adult lives.

I hired a couple recently for one day and although their thumbs can move like lightning on palm pilots beneath their non-violent school desks, splattering the oncoming zombie hordes, they were otherwise useless. I am a damaged old man and shouldn't be able to outwork three times my weight in young human flesh. And it wasn't because they couldn't, rather they didn't give a damn and spent unsupervised time contriving amusements. Nor could they cope with honesty and now they are afraid to speak to me and the self- confidence of at least one is such that he can't apply for a job without being accompanied by his mother. I foresee many hundreds of thousands of public dollars here on housing and related support over his lifetime, far more than the nation has ever gleaned from me.

And weaker boys are still being bullied in the toilets, about which they dare not tell. The girls carry on their underhanded and arbitrary vendettas against the more vulnerable and needy; highly sophisticated programs of sniping, undermining and misrepresentation turbocharged by social media. The sisterhood seems so much less concerned about this kind of viciousness; (non-violence?) perhaps because they are so much better at it than males whose oafish physicality is more immediate and confrontational but usually transitory and sometimes even good-natured.

In my short teaching career I would estimate that a quarter of the teachers in the staffroom had the major ambition to grow old so they could retire. It is just too stressful and nobody else in the workplace has to deal with the volumes of crap they are exposed to every day. And this is not only my personal opinion: they told me at teacher's college that I was being prepared for the worst job in the world. Well maybe it shouldn't have to be that way. So what do you do when a kid contemptuously tells you to "stick your pink slip up your arse." Bring out the big guns and give him a red one? And so the confrontation drags on unresolved with all the widening ripples of stress; angst, personal ill-will, attendant paperwork, administrative back-up, threat of suspension, parental involvement, and several expensive man-hours.

And the teachers who can do other things. Many of these are the people that need to be retained. Not hugely long ago I was on the street in town during school hours and I met the maths master from a highschool where I did occasional relief work. He was beaming.

"What are you doing out of class this time of day?" I asked.

"That's all over for me," he said, "and I am over the moon. I'm selling life insurance and have just made my first superannuation millionaire!"

He had sold a plan to some bright new entrant to the workforce who had a lifetime ahead of him. I was profoundly shocked and all I could think of was the 'f' word. He was one of the most effective people I knew at that school, and if he couldn't or wouldn't do it who would? And simultaneously I realized that he was barely numerate, a babe in the woods. To put it into context 'there is many a slip' - the bloated share market still had a few months of life in it and the fallout - the property bubble and ZIRP were all pending. Not to mention the multinational corporate fee structure on top of all that.

You are quite dismissive of Kevin Donelly's anecdotal and so 'last-century' outmoded sallies toward possible improvements to the teaching process. Here is another anecdote from the dark past when everyone in my (Canadian) school was literate and numerate.  I recall my grade 9 manual arts teacher, his back turned while writing tech drawing notes on the blackboard even as young larrikin Alan Mansell was slowly screwing his vise up on a large percussion cap from an antique black powder firearm. When it inexplicably failed to go off he removed it, and placing it on top of the vise, hit it with a ball-peen hammer. The plan was of course to replace the hammer in its place and regain an angelic and uninvolved pose before the surprised teacher could turn around. It was ear-splitting, like a pistol shot and he did turn, to see the kid standing in a perfect halo of dense white smoke, his mischievous smile melting to chagrin.

It might surprise you that there were almost no instructional delays, no coloured slips, a runner was not sent to the office for back-up or guidance, the police were not called to investigate the posession of dangerous goods, and the boy's parents weren't informed unless he told them himself years later. Rather my teacher Mr. Wapple, a faint smile on his lips said "Mansell, come forward. Bend over." And he applied a single good whack from a piece of dressed 1x2 that he kept for the purpose. The kid walked back to his desk rubbing his backside and smiling ruefully and everyone was a winner: Authority had withstood the challenge, there was universal admiration for the teacher who had shown coolness, restraint and applomb, there were no hard feelings or recriminations, and no-one did anything to bring similar down upon themselves for the whole year, at least in my class. Mansell did not begin his career with question marks on his record. He had achieved some celebrity and even got to sign his name on the stick. And 50 years later I still do great tech drawings having been motivated to pay close attention at most times.

To label that as violence is a gross and Kafka-esque misrepresentation if you balance it against the wasteful, gut- churning, draining, sh**storm that would be the likely outcome of the boy's act in our enlightened new century. And regarding the stick, a fine teacher would lose his job and that self-confidant little monkey who had been so pleased with himself transformed to a pathetic victim. All this is not to say that institutionalizing the strap for kids is a good idea. Firstly it is cruel because it lacks immediacy and justice. Secondly it is arbitrary. Once I put on a fierce face and turning the joke back on them, I sent three boys to a relatively benign principal with a note they had been passing regarding me and oral sex. But he wasn't in and they came back in tears having been caned by the vice principal.

"I owe you one, sir," snarled the one partial innocent in the affair.

And finally, when something passes from the imagination through institutional culture to pedestrian reality it loses so much of its compelling power and risks becoming a professional badge of competence, a childhood status symbol or right of passage to somewhere you really don't want to go.

But at the same time lets consider the possibility that our deep instincts -if we are well- meaning, well- adjusted people – just might be more correct than some 'so this season' ideology. Especially when it is going so badly that the major defense is the standard fallback - we must stay the course or throw even more money at it; so like your political adversaries squandering our billions /millions on Joint Strike Fighters or the oxymoronic 'clean coal.'

Every young animal has to find its boundaries which are a big part of who we are. And an adult authority figure who fails to supply even this basic information is weak and not worth a cracker in the eyes of a younger generation. That is essentially why relations are so strained in classrooms these days. Sorry, the kids can't help it; that's just how we are programmed. So a friendly or restraining hand on a shoulder is not an assault. A flick on the ear or loud whack with a rolled exam paper or even a rare ritualized public smack on the backside with a cane is not an act of violence and trusting our natural, immediate responses to classroom management could save countless careers, ulcers heartaches and billions of dollars in wasted and drawn-out confrontation; time that should be spent delivering the syllabus.

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