The customer is not always right: A case for teacher autonomy in the classroom
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Every absurdity has a champion to defend it.
-Oliver Goldsmith, "The Traveller, Or, A Prospect of Society"
According to both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and English Language Program (ELP) requirements, students are supposed to be "active learners." In reality, many come and go at will. If they return, it is 10, 15, 20 or more minutes later, sauntering into the classroom, coffee or soda and junk food in hand and reeking of cigarette smoke.
Promptly, they fall asleep, splayed across their desks and, at times, snoring. Some form groups and play tic-tac-toe. Obstinately, they are habitually unprepared for class, refusing to do any work and refusing to participate in anything class-related. No matter how many hours I invest in lesson planning, nor how enthusiastic I am when teaching, no matter how many innovative exercises I design to tap students' multiple intelligences and many learning styles, there are always some — sadly, an increasing number — who have no intention of meeting their academic responsibilities.
As a result of their inappropriate and disruptive behavior, they steal precious learning time from their classmates, and they create a stressful environment for classmates and teacher.
There may be all sorts of reasons behind their behavior: Perhaps, because their countries or parents are sponsoring them, the "students" have no vested interest in their education. Perhaps they are too distracted by the many freedoms available to them in the United States.
Perhaps they are not interested in learning English and matriculating in a U.S. college or university, but their government or their parents or both insisted they do so. Perhaps, as is the case where I worked until recently, it is because administrators equate students with customers who are to be served, and as businessman Harry Selfridge asserted, "the customer is always right."
Faculty's unofficial slogan for this program, coined by a teacher, is a slogan which faculty frequently repeat as if a mantra, "You’re paying, you’re staying," referring to the program’s paying customers (students) and reflecting faculty’s cynical perspective. I can make only an educated guess about the reasons behind such outrageous student behavior.
Perhaps the reasons are a combination of these or something else altogether. What I do know is that, as a teacher, it is my responsibility to establish and maintain a safe, nurturing, challenging and disciplined environment in which students can thrive, just as it is my responsibility to address the disruptive behavior some are intent on causing.
Recently, after repeated incidents of their unpreparedness and disruptive behavior, I chose to ask the disruptors to find a quiet place outside of class to complete their work and to return when they had. Other faculty followed suit. Imagine, then, my dismay when my supervisor roundly admonished me for my approach because malcontents complained to her and other administrators that I was "throwing them out of class."
My supervisor told me that I should "ignore" the disruptive ones; if they are sleeping, I should let them snooze. If they are playing games or are otherwise uninvolved in class, I should let them be. My supervisor told me that I — I — was the antagonistic one because I chose not to abide such unsuitable behavior.
My supervisor came to this decision after conferring with her supervisor who conferred with the university attorney about my classroom management approach. "Liability issues," my supervisor told me. Why is it not a liability issue, I — and my colleagues — wondered, when students voluntarily leave their classes?
I know I am not the only teacher facing the unnecessary disturbances that jeopardize the learning environment. I know I am not the only teacher who has been stymied by rules and regulations that undermine teachers' freedom to manage our classes for our students’ and our own best interests. Certainly, I followed the multiple requisite steps to report the problems. Unfortunately, because the process permits the perpetrators many incidents of inappropriate behavior before they must meet with administrators, those responsible were able to cause havoc for most of the seven-week term.
The academy has a long history of academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors, the century-old organization that is the bellwether in developing and implementing best practices policies to inform and guide higher education administrators, faculty, and students, asserts, "Academic freedom is the indispensable requisite for unfettered teaching and research in institutions of higher education." The National Association of College and University Attorneys notes that "American higher education relies on the fundamental value of academic freedom."
Even though administrators, students, parents and those writing the checks for tuition frequently devalue teachers and treat teachers as nothing more than their pawns to control and silence, upon whom to impose arbitrary rules that eviscerate our autonomy and our expertise, we are in fact highly educated, highly skilled professionals with valuable insights and perspectives. We are the ones on the front lines. We are the ones who know better than anyone else — especially far better than supervisors and other administrators who keep a sheltered distance from our classrooms — what transpires every moment of every day in our classrooms.
Unlike too many of those sitting in our classrooms, we take our responsibilities seriously: We are in class to inspire students to reach beyond their perceived limitations, to encourage students to embrace challenges beyond their comfort zones on their journey to new levels of achievement and greater depths of critical thinking and perspicacity, and to provide students with a safe, respectful, nurturing and stimulating environment in which to thrive.
However, those who come to class habitually unprepared — even if they do nothing but sit quietly in the classroom — contemptuously and emphatically proclaim that they have no interest in the remarkable gifts education has to offer. They send the deleterious message to their classmates and to their instructors that they are recalcitrant in their disinterest in education and that their mission is to undermine the objectives of the class, to undermine the educational environment, to impede the learning process, and to disrupt and sabotage the teacher's vital role.
Actively disruptive students endanger the security of the classroom environment, which is supposed to be a safe place in which students can test themselves, grow and flourish. "In general, research supports the effectiveness of an authoritative approach to discipline (as opposed to an authoritarian or permissive approach) in the prevention of behavior problems. Authoritative teachers set high standards and hold high expectations; enforce rules and standards in a firm, fair, and consistent manner […]" (emphasis added).
The university ELP where I taught until recently, has a Prohibited Conduct Code for individuals; the Code delineates a long list of behavior subject to disciplinary action, including but not limited to:
- Knowingly furnishing false information to any […] instructor […]
- Disruption or obstruction of teaching, classroom or other educational interactions […]
- Disruption or obstruction also includes any form of abuse, […] intimidation, (and) bullying […]
- Abusive conduct, including […] verbal abuse, […] intimidation, bullying, […] and/or other conduct which threatens or endangers the physical or psychological health, safety, or welfare of […] another individual or a group of individuals.
The university's Policy on Disruptive and Obstructive Classroom Behavior states, "University policy prohibits all forms of disruptive or obstructive behavior or demonstrations in classrooms […]. If any person disrupts the orderly conduct of any class, laboratory, or similar activity, or makes threat thereof, the faculty member should warn the person that such act is not only in violation of University rules but is in violation of state law, and that appropriate University and legal action will be taken."
Who better to identify what is disruptive or obstructive behavior than the professional — the teacher — charged with the care and education of students?
Every academic institution has a policy akin to this one, and everywhere I turn, I meet yet another teacher — or more commonly, a former teacher — who recounts her frustration with student behavior and the laissez faire attitude administrators have toward that behavior. In an email conversation with a retired teacher whom I met recently, she included a July 11, 1997, New York Times letter to the editor she had read responding to Rochester, New York’s school district proposal to allow parents to evaluate teachers:
To the Editor:
I find the Rochester school district's proposal to solicit teacher evaluations from parents appalling (news article, July 9). You reported July 8 that only a small percentage of candidates for a teaching job on Long Island passed a qualifying test. The implication is that the candidates' teachers set very low standards.
Good teachers must set high standards. But for many parents, good teachers are those liked by their children, often because they do not make many demands and give high grades for mediocre work. Parent evaluations will discourage those of us who believe in emphasizing hard work, knowledge of subject matter and the ability to think critically.
Maplewood, N.J., July 10, 1997
Each instance of problematic behavior that I encountered in the ELP was caused by those who are classified as students but who in no way demonstrate the characteristics of students; that problematic behavior has fallen into at least one of the categories described in the code and policy quoted above.
Students have bullied, verbally abused, and/or intimidated their classmates, they have verbally antagonized me, they have lied to me, they have laughed at and scoffed at me, they have ignored me, they have mocked me, and/or they have disrupted or obstructed my teaching and classrooms.
As an accomplished, experienced, and professional educator, my first priority is and will always be to protect those who have come to learn and who rightfully expect a safe place in which to learn. As such, I addressed the problems created by those who wish to thwart the learning community and the learning process.
Although the program's standardized syllabi detail students' responsibilities, including but not limited to the following (emphasis added), little is being done to immediately hold students accountable because of the program’s burdensome, labyrinthine attendance/performance procedure that takes teachers too much time to complete.
- Be an Active Learner: Seek information, do what you can, and try even when you are uncertain. Ask questions when you do not understand. Use every opportunity to speak in English, and limit cell phone use to accessing learning tools such as online dictionaries.
- Follow the Homework Policy: All homework assignments are expected to be done on time. It is your responsibility to regularly check RamCT/Canvas for homework assignments. Students are expected to come to class having completed all reading assignments and homework tasks that were given in the previous class or posted to RamCT/Canvas.
- Follow the Attendance and Participation Policy: It is mandatory and crucial that students attend and participate in all class meetings. Attendance counts only when students arrive to class on time and remain in class during the scheduled class period. Absenteeism, late arrivals and early departures will negatively impact your class grade. Student participation includes:
- Follow Academic and Performance Guidelines: INTO CSU aims to ensure that individuals who have been granted a student visa exhibit student behavior by attending class and completing class assignments. For those students who do not show normal student behavior, various disciplinary procedures will take place.
-attending all class meetings
-contributing to discussions
-respecting your classmates and instructor by not texting or talking on your cell phone during class
-actively asking and answering questions in the classroom as well as in any assigned groups
-attending instructor meetings or conferences
Based on the program’s own standardized syllabi, those who are habitually unprepared (let alone disruptive) are violating all of the student responsibilities the program claims to enforce. But students are not only violating program policy. They are, in fact, violating the United States of America’s F-1 visa requirements.
F-1 visa requirements state that those holding an F-1 Student Visa "are required to study in a full-time ESL program - a minimum of 18 hours per week." The operative phrase here is "required to study." Not required to sit and do nothing. Not required to behave disruptively. Not required to be habitually unprepared. REQUIRED TO STUDY. And unequivocally and indisputably the teacher—not a removed and detached administrator—is the best judge of whether her students are, in fact, studying. Teachers must be allowed the autonomy to make the decisions they determine as best for all concerned, not just those with the deepest pockets and the largest number of paying bodies.
What would the United States Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Commission on English Language Accreditation (CEA) do if they knew of the many who are violating their visas?
Over 20 years ago, I first tried the approach of asking those who were habitually unprepared for class to leave class, find a quiet place to prepare their work, and return when they were ready. Of course, the unprepared grumbled and thought I was a tyrant, but the students — those who came to study and learn — were profoundly appreciative and thanked me profusely.
All these years later, I am still in touch with many of those students who fondly recount our classes and how I stood steadfast, refusing to capitulate to the complaints of an irresponsible, disgruntled handful. I was fortunate in that I had tenure-equivalent, and no administrator interfered with my decision.
On one hand, I have a burgeoning file that keeps every one of the 20-plus years of students’ thank you notes, cards, and letters — including those from a few weeks ago — and I take them out at times like this to reassure myself that there are those who genuinely value and respect me and my teaching.
And when my colleagues both applaud my efforts and share in my despair, I begin to feel a bit less like I am caught in a Kafkaesque cacophony of chaos. On the other hand, when I see that nothing has changed in the 20 years since Ms. Miller penned her letter to the editor, I am profoundly disgusted, demoralized, and outraged that the champions of absurdity have, apparently, triumphed.
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