Today in class we discussed whether killing is ever justified. One of my students, typically a truant wanderer that has no entry point into class, decided to join in. He said that it’s never okay to kill a person who can’t defend himself, when no one would be able to stand up for or avenge him. He likened it to beating up a disabled person. He didn’t like the power difference; that made it unjust. Then he brought in a real-life example; he mentioned how our administrators were unjust at times because students can’t defend themselves. Administrators can yell at students, speak disrespectfully and make jokes out of students, and students can’t do anything about it except feel embarrassed and angry at the injustice of it all.
I was so proud I could cry.
Jared* may not be an obedient, scholarly-minded student. He may lack organization, self-control, academic identity, or whatever other things he was supposed to pick up along the way. Schools have failed him in too many ways to count. But he–perhaps more clearly than any of us– sees the truth at the heart of our education issues. It is a problem that has fallen under the radar of the education reform movement, a problem that never comes up in my Educational Theory classes, a problem that is rarely, if ever, talked about at all. Schools, schoolboards, classes, administrations, policymaking bodies… all have one thing in common: people. Real, live human beings with feelings and character and skills and sense-making and needs and wants of their own. Real children and adults with insecurities and imperfections, good days and bad days, moods, emotions, and identities. Human beings who fear and fail, who at times are lazy, who lie and gossip, who stand up for things, and who stand by silent.
We who analyze and criticize schools too often fall into language that suggests that schools are more like factories than families. We assume that if we only make our methods more efficient, if we only create practices and materials that are more effective, then students will become better products. We start our movements, give them catchy names, write op-eds about them, and assume that, implemented, they will be effective. For sure, the methods we use to teach are important, and the details of our systems no less. But any teacher or student can tell you that people and relationships are just as big a part of learning.
We who work in schools—teachers, administrators, specialists, counselors, parents, mentors—are responsible for the creation of students as people, not just as workers; we have a responsibility to their selves as much as their skills. At the end of the day, as much as our official goals for students may be about their literacy or math abilities, our students’ goals are mostly about figuring out who they are, who is in charge, and if they are loved. This is the task of every child, and so we must take it as a first order to honor their priorities and needs: we cannot treat our children as anything less than real people, worthy of honor and respect. The messages and expectations we hand to kids will shape their identities and choices for their lives. So I urge us to consider: What relationships do we offer students? What experiences are we creating for them?
If we do not model integrity for our students, how will they know it is important? If we do not treat students politely, how will they learn to respect others? If we do not ask what is wrong before we tell them they are doing something wrong, how will they learn self-control?
Do we give each child a chance, or do we judge first? Do we like having power over children, or are we seeking to empower them? Do we want to control children, or do we want the children to have security enough to control themselves? Do we see children as worthy of honor and respect and admiration, or are we too busy hushing them, yelling at them, seeking obedience from them? Do we distrust children, or are we willing to offer children the opportunity to become trustworthy? Are we focusing on all the things they lack, all the things that need to be ‘fixed’? Or are we getting to know the children in front of us, admiring and adoring them as the delightful children they are?
When we demand changes in kids, do we provide an entry point, or do we just verbally abuse kids without ever providing hope? Are we responsible holders of power—wise, cautious, and humble–, or are we the worst kind of bullies, adults whose power over children has become corrupt?
Have we considered things from their perspective? Are we, deep down, afraid of the teenagers in front of us (and the adults they might become)?
I do not exempt myself from the limits of patience and compassion, the temptation to despair and cut children off from their umpteenth chance. I too have spoken carelessly of and to children, creating identities in them that they will probably remember long after I have forgotten the words I let slip. I, too, in fear and confusion, have stood by rules when I should have given second chances, given answers when I was too tired to keep asking questions. I too have lost hope on some days for the ‘bad’ kids, and created expectations that made it impossible for a child to re-enter. I too have found myself in power battles I never meant to get into with teenagers who have less identity than I to stand on, been too tired to back up and see the world from my students’ shoes, stood by silent as they are scolded and threatened for something they are told not to question in the same breath with which they are encouraged to think critically.
But I cannot express how wrong this is, and the depth with which this obsession with control is entrenched and accepted in our culture and our schools makes it no less terrible an abuse of power, made more terrible by the very powerlessness of children. They have neither the knowledge, nor the rights to defend themselves against our fears.
* * *
To clarify, it isn’t that all structures and rules are wrong. Quite the contrary. Teenagers struggle with self-motivation and self-esteem enough that an adult telling them to get to work and stop talking or it will come out of their grade can be as relieving an entry point to success as any other. A well-designed system of accountability, feedback, consistency, and structure is foundational to our students’ development. Even we adults—childlike that we still are—benefit from such systems. Solidarity amongst adults regarding which messages to be insistent on and consistent about makes a huge difference in what messages children internalize. And I do not discount the importance of learning real scholarly knowledge: the successful achievement of standards and skills is essential to a child’s understanding of her identity, so academics must be a priority. Children, and especially teenagers, need adults, and they need school.
I think the difference lies in our reasoning and our approach. We must let them try out their adulthood, their full selves, and be there to catch things when they fail. When I was young, my dad used to stand next to the hoop as I tossed basketballs in its direction. When I didn’t make it, he’d rebound and give the ball back to me, or he tipped it in the rest of the way, so that I still scored once or twice. This is our work as adults: even when our children’s aim is off, we make sure they get another shot.
* * *
I do not deny the agency of many of my students in getting themselves into the situations they are in in the first place. But teenagers everywhere do stupid things- what we need to understand is the bias of opportunities and consequences that we have created. For one child, being bad is having a drink, for another, going to a club, for another, trying hard drugs, for another, running away. For one student, being bad is forgetting one night’s homework, for another, being bad is telling a teacher to fuck off and leaving the building. And these opportunities and consequences are normed by stereotypes as much as they are by parents and teachers. School culture is far more often modeled and enforced by the kids than by adults. Boys are expected to ‘man up’ and be cool and not be nerdy or sensitive, to not be intimidated or dominated by their [often female] teachers. Girls are expected to be pretty and obedient and still. The kids tell each other who to be and what to do. And, heartbreakingly, we all play into it. Our children have plenty of agency in creating themselves and creating their cultures.
But honoring our students’ agency doesn’t necessarily look like abandoning them to their mistakes and washing our hands of the matter. Turning a life around is immensely hard work. In fact, the inertia of relationships, habits, expectations, discrimination, and opportunity make it nearly impossible for many people. For adolescents, for whom peer opinions are so important and identities are so fragile, it is even harder. If we cannot be adult enough to respect our students and have compassion on them and allow them to make those mistakes, we should not be around them. Children—no matter if in fifth grade or tenth grade—must be allowed to mess up, and they must be allowed to remake themselves. We cannot give up on our troublemakers; we who can see the whole picture must help them get out. When Jared tells me in one breath that he wants to go to college and in the next that he’s the real deal and he’s “gonna be in the ‘life’ forever”, I cannot abandon him to the consequences of decisions he made as a 13-year-old without telling him a real option for how he could get out if he was considering it. He is so entrenched socially in gang culture that an adult telling him to ‘turn his life around’ means nothing. He hasn’t got a path unless we make one for him. When Stacey tells me she’s going to be the first in her family to graduate high school and get to college, and then she doesn’t show up at school for a week for personal reasons, and her grade drops in my class, I can’t abandon her to the consequences of her mistake and just shrug her off as unreliable. She needs real, plausible hope, and she needs it consistently. When we adults become so attached to justifying our own ideas about the people around us that we cling to our bad opinions of children, we have failed them. When we lose the energy to push students to remake what we know about them into the better versions of themselves, providing them hope and eternal second chances, we have failed them. When we tell kids to change because we see their futures, but we don’t help them find a way, we have done nothing but laid a judgmental charge on their heads and washed our hands clean of the responsibility we still have to help.
* * *
We cannot treat our children– and especially young adults– as if they are something less than human beings. They only ever deserve the utmost respect from us. They are capable of a fuller and deeper hope, a truer sense of justice, a purer form of morality than we adults can often reach. Even the best of adults need children to remind them in one breath to take life less seriously and yet to see justice more clearly. Children can still see outside the box. They see the world for what it is– and schools for what they are– and say the truth, unlike we older people who, tired and worn enough to choose our battles, turn away and shrug and say ‘that’s just how it is.’ They respond intuitively to love and respect; they say what they think and do what they feel with a true honesty. The part of my students that is still childlike should be treasured and honored. It will pass away soon enough, and my students’ character will solidify, their hope will be tempered, their view of the world less rosy. But now, they are those members of our society closest to God in honesty, in freedom, in joy, in hope. They only ever deserve our admiration.
Honoring children feels uncomfortable and foreign to many of us adults. It is not what we do. We reward obedience and we punish rebellion and we go back to our own lives. We need children to behave, to be quiet, to not disrupt the big, real world around us. It makes sense: it’s embarrassing when the kids over whom we supposedly have authority are out of line. It feels scary and unpredictable. It’s annoying.
But what if we reconsidered? What if we lived in a world in which people climb tables and shout for joy and dance in public? What is so wrong with a world in which singing and jokes are more important than being productive, where creativity is as important as productivity? What is so wrong with a world in which people are actually proud of their accomplishments and excited about what comes next? Our kids can see it. Can we think out of the box enough to even consider their vision? Perhaps it is immature. Maybe our kids have some really terrible ideas about how the world should work. But none of us lose when we remember our childlike sides, nor when we practice compassion.
* * *
I teach ninth grade, so many of my students are already half-adult, trying out what it’s like to have power in their hands, making mistakes with it. I do not wish to gloss over those moments of cruelty, of savagery, of power-mongering and tyranny and all the abuses of humanity that I see my students testing out. My classroom is full of young people who are trying to figure out who they are —and who they are not– each day. But we all have fallen short like these– better that those experiments be had while the children are still teens and there are still many more chances. We should not treat these mistakes with fear, with life-long consequences. Rather, we must treat them with compassion; modeling the character we wish our students to develop, and blinking again and again to forget those try-out identities we never wanted our kids to keep.
So this is a call to honor our children and our rising adults. There are young people all around you every day, people with dreams, fears, hopes, interests, insecurities, and ideas. Every child has these dreams. Even the supposedly lost causes. Even the ones who drive you crazy. Get to know them. Try on their shoes and their shades, see the world from their perspective. Ask them questions until they know you’re really listening. Honor them with your utmost integrity and honesty. Don’t be in such a hurry to prepare them for your grown-up working world that you quash all the vision in them to change it. Don’t be so panicked about keeping things under control that you never even listen or give them a chance to earn your trust. Don’t be so sure that your knowledge and questions are better than the intellect and thinking of your kids. Be ready for when they ask why.
And fellow teachers, treasure your troublemakers. Let them burrow into the soft spots of your soul, long-lived reminders that the world is not about you or your agenda, and that there is more to life than our productivity goals and standards-based test scores. Who knows? Maybe the world our kids are creating is a better world than we would have imagined. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see it lived out.
*All names of students in this piece have been changed.