End Totalitarian Teaching (Part 4 of 7)

March 26, 2010

This article is the fourth in a seven-part series that implores teachers to abandon their attachment to outdated, oppressive, and arbitrary control issues, in the name of harboring a more positive, fostering learning environment.  Each part of the series focuses on a different aspect of control.  Part 4 focuses on the aspect of denying students adequate down-time during school hours.

Imperative #4: Give Them Time and Space to Breathe

We ask them to wake before sunrise, report to a place they generally loathe, to do work that doesn’t interest them, and to spend what little money they have on things they don’t want.  It sounds very much like a job.  Unfortunately for students, it’s a job for which they did not apply, and from which they are not allowed to take breaks.  From approximately 7:00am to 3:00pm or beyond, totalitarian teachers and administrators expect students to be punctual, productive, and proud.  They also expect students to refrain from socializing, to avoid contact with the outside world, and to denounce any aspect of culture that has not been deemed “classical.”  And they wonder why students are so recalcitrant.

At our school we have a twenty-five minute interim period between second and third that is interchangeably referred to as “advisory” or “homeroom.”  We did not have this time slot last year; it was designed to take ASB announcements and general housekeeping issues like letters to parents out of the instructional time on which they constantly encroached.  Overall, I think it’s wonderful.  What isn’t wonderful is how every disparate faction on campus is trying to monopolize that time for its own agenda.  There is increasing pressure on the teachers to use the time after announcements are concluded (rarely more than fifteen minutes) to “do” something, whether it is an assignment, some test prep activities, college prep activities, or sustained silent reading.  To that end, the administrators have seen fit to give the advisory period “pass/no-pass” status – with a “no-pass” mark having negative effects on students’ eligibility for extra-curricular activities.  The intent, of course, is to compel the students to complete whatever menial busy work the teacher is attempting to force into this ten- or fifteen-minute remainder.  God forbid the students get ten minutes out of their eight-hour day to freely socialize and simply take a break.

We need to accept that commandeering every single minute of a student’s day at school does not equal learning.

The structure of the six-period day is problematic in itself.  Students are expected to work feverishly for fifty straight minutes on sometimes very difficult concepts, many of which have no practical or cultural relevance to them.  Then they must hustle from one subject to the next, as though a demon is on their tail, with scarcely a moment to comprehend what they have just been taught before something new and entirely unrelated is forced upon them.  They need processing time.  They need down time, even if it is not to “digest” the material, but simply to stop thinking about it, to let the subconscious work while the conscious rests.

One might argue that passing period satisfies this.  It is five to seven minutes where socializing is permitted.  However, those five to seven minutes must be consumed walking from one class to the next, for if the student is late to class, the totalitarian teacher will deny him access, send him to the office for a tardy pass (wasting even more instructional time), and follow with disciplinary measures.  Even as the passing period winds down into its last two minutes, proctors stand around and scream at the students to disband and get to class, as though any assembly of three or more students is cause for riot police and rubber bullets.  Then of course there is the restroom issue.  Students are told to use the passing period for this purpose, although the window is hardly sufficient to tend to one’s necessities and still report to class on time.  There is no processing taking place during passing period.  There is only panic.

Perhaps this panic could be mitigated by letting students use the restroom during instructional time.  Unfortunately, totalitarian teachers arbitrarily and inhumanely deny restroom visits during class.  They claim that the student will be missing some valuable instruction.  They claim that the student doesn’t “really” need to go to the bathroom, and will simply waste time.  I myself have walked out of class – against the posted classroom rules – to relieve myself, because the teacher refused to excuse me, and I’ve had to face disciplinary measures as a result.  I wondered what the consequences would have been had I shat on the floor.  (I wasn’t sure, as such consequences were not conspicuously posted.)

It is not the teacher’s place to determine whether or not a student “really” has to use the restroom.  Will the student miss some instructional time?  Yes, a little, but nothing that can’t be made up.  Might the student waste time?  Probably, but a student who is either preoccupied with the urge to pee or simply bored in class is going to waste time wherever he is.  Incidentally, if the classroom is so boring that droves of students are absconding under the false pretense of using the restroom, then the problem isn’t the students…  Whether a student really needs to use the restroom or not, and whether or not he dilly-dallies while he’s in there, one thing is certain: the student is not learning when he is denied a restroom visit.  He has already tuned the teacher out.  He is resentful, and probably in physical discomfort.

This leaves only lunchtime.  It is thirty minutes where socializing is permitted.  However, because students can rarely leave one class to visit another teacher during his or her prep period, this often leaves lunchtime as the only time a student can seek private assistance.  Worse: totalitarian teachers will mandate that students surrender their lunch, because the teacher is unwilling or unable to give students time during prep periods or after school.  On top of that, students are constantly summoned during lunch by the office for all variety of issues – issues that could be resolved at any other time.  The bottom line is: not even lunch is not sacred.

We claim that we are preparing students for adulthood.  We claim that we are teaching them the kind of discipline and rigor that will be expected of them when they join the workforce.  This is not true.  At minimum, a laborer is entitled to two ten-minute breaks and a half-hour lunch for an eight-hour day.  For some reason this does not apply to students.  We demand that every minute of their time belongs to us.  We take from them every precious moment that might enliven the work day, that might make the unbearable somewhat bearable.  We aren’t teaching them responsibility.  What we are doing is creating a hostile work environment.  And like an adversarial environment, a hostile work environment is not a learning environment.  It is a place where the supplicants do as they are told out of fear rather than willingness, and where infractions of the rules are made worse because they are not the result of carelessness or laziness, but rather the symptoms of passive resistance.  So long as we continue to lay claim to students’ every academic minute, so long as we claim that they somehow “owe us” the hours between 7:00am and 3:00pm (and beyond), students are not spending time in school.  They are serving time.

Give them time and space to breath.  Give them time and space to process what we’ve taught them, and to appreciate it.

2 Responses to “End Totalitarian Teaching (Part 4 of 7)”

  1. Eirwen said

    I liked this post because I could relate to it. Actually, the whole series is pretty awesome. The bathroom thing was what made me decide to comment instead of lurk. In my senior year, I ended up in the hospital because of severely infected kidneys that required surgery. My mother had refused to take me to the hospital or a doctor because she was convinced I was lying about the excruciating pain I was feeling (really a lovely woman).

    Anyway, after having kidney surgery, it’s extremely important to “go” when you have to, and to flush your system. Needless to say, this became a problem. My AP Statistics teacher even accused me of skipping school for a week (I was in the hospital), and a macroeconomics teacher refused to let me use the restroom during a test, I started crying and asked if I could at least step outside the door to blow my nose, and she yelled at me in front of the class for trying to cheat and generally being lazy and weak.

    I absolutely despised most of my teachers in HS, although I loved learning. I had several that treated the students the way it sounds like you do, and I still think of them fondly. And in my case gratefully, because I went through a rough time in my senior year and most of the teachers (as some people do in life) see a person weaker than themselves and take the opportunity to make themselves feel better by treating students like crap.

    Thanks for doing this series, I really hope more teachers were like this. I know if mine were, I would have had at least one place to go where I wasn’t being emotionally abused.

    • Eirwen, thank you for reading and sharing your story. It’s a damned shame that so many teachers refuse to give the student the benefit of the doubt and simply begin their relationship working under the assumption that the student is cheating and/or lying. Honestly, even if that were true half as much as totalitarian teachers make it out to be, it still wouldn’t be all that bad. See my argument on the true “value” of academic knowledge in Not Everyone Is an Alpha… And That’s Okay.

      As for the restroom thing, your story is the perfect example of how people’s basic needs are criminally and unethically denied, not just in the school setting but also in the general public. Next time you are tooling around a busy city or downtown shopping district, especially the older ones, see how many shops you can count that either claim they “don’t have” a restroom or deny the right to use the restroom to the public. I feel there should be a federal if not global law that prohibits public establishments from denying people access to the restroom. After all, if this were the state of nature, we’d relieve ourselves just about anywhere we pleased. It isn’t our fault that urban planners came along, annihilated the wilderness, and established shopping malls on every square acre of earthly terrain. Then they tell you you’re not allowed to pee in the street.

      Thank you again for commenting. I hope things are well for you these days, and I wish for you to be happy.

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