A Letter to Teachers:  Stop pretending that compliance is the same as learning

I apologize for taking a break from writing here for quite a while. Let’s just say it’s been quite a school year for me and mine. Maybe sometime I’ll write a post that summarizes what’s been happening, but not today. I have to get something off my chest.

Anyone who has survived high school knows the signs. Your questions go unanswered. Rules in the classroom are absolute, rigid and “because I say so.” The mere crossing of the threshold of the classroom brings on emotional and physical dread as you realize that you’ll no doubt do something considered “out of line” and even if you do manage to do things the way the teacher wants, you’ll still feel inadequate and not understand why you have to do any of it. Authoritarian teachers who equate submissive, unquestioning, following of rules and unquestioning compliance with being a “good” student are enough to kill anyone’s learning. We’ve all seen it and we’ve likely experienced it.

At Back to School Night, I usually have the read on my kids’ teachers within the first 2 minutes of their presentations. Teachers who present the “I’ve been doing this forever and I have everything under control” attitude are terrifying to me. They present their slideshow with the grade percentages and explain that as long as the students turn in all their work on time every time, they’ll be fine. I usually am squirming and texting my child, “Beware Mr/Ms. X they are controlling.” My impressions are typically borne out over the course of the year.

What do teenagers learn from this kind of teacher? Well, let me tell you what my older son has learned this year. He suffered a concussion on Mother’s Day that was really serious and the symptoms of his injury were long lasting (My husband closed the back door of our Highlander just as Carl was standing up to bring in some groceries, and his head and the door met in the middle.)

It became immediately obvious which teachers cared about him and which teachers cared about him checking off every boxes. He learned the controlling teachers cared only about pretending that “holding the line” made them good teachers. He learned that those who cared about him healing and taking his time healing actually cared not only about his learning, but more importantly about him – 15 year old student who had suffered an injury.

In the end, he had to take 3 state tests after missing a month of school and having a concussion. Guess what? The two tests he passed – were in the subjects taught by the compassionate teachers. The one he failed – was in the subject taught by his most controlling teacher.

The only thing you learn from a rigid and controlling teacher is this: You learn that you do not like the rigid and controlling teacher and that they do not like you. The teachers who respect and like their students are the ones from whom you learn the most.

I had a great science teacher in Middle School who terrified me, but not because she was controlling. She was strict. She never let me get away with doing work that was sub-par for me. She had very high expectations. She was also older than dirt and had a shriveled lower left leg from polio and walked with a cane and used a six inch high riser in her shoe. She was a frightening and imposing woman who demanded my best work. I never learned so much. She was able to communicate to me that she made those demands because she cared about me and didn’t want me to sell myself short, not because “she said so.” There’s a world of difference.

As for me, I helped my son as best I could – advocating for him and trying to help him keep track of assignments and such. I also talked him through the fact that sometimes you have to deal with unreasonable jerk-wads and surviving them is often the best you can hope for, sadly. Tomorrow is his last day of school for this year. It’s been frustrating, painful, and confusing because of the concussion and because of the teachers who have valued his compliance above his well-being and learning. Those teachers who have cared about him and have been reasonable and understanding are those from whom he’s learned the most. The others will be stories he’ll tell later in life about nightmare teachers who made him hate school and/or their subjects.

Compliance is not the same as learning. However, in all too many cases, it is the difference between an A in a class and a C. I hope that teens stay rebellious and questioning and learn that the people with a little authority who want to control their behavior and thinking are the most dangerous and untrustworthy.

What do you think?

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