By Charles Laramie
I have been teaching since 1992, and this will be my last year. The reason I am leaving is that I can no longer allow myself to be subjected to the foul language and disrespect I hear in schools on a daily basis. To stay would be to go against everything I believe in.
Students no longer listen to, nor do they respect, the adults who teach them. Nor do they listen to or respect the administrators who are expected to enforce the rules that make the school climate one where students feel safe and free to learn. Today’s students have no reason to fear the consequences that might be imposed by those in a position of authority. This is because there are few if any consequences for their behaviors in school or, it would seem, at home. Students see this on a daily basis.
I have taught in many districts, and I have seen the same behaviors in all of them. I’ve spoken with teachers in many of the other districts throughout Vermont and am told they deal with the same problems on a daily basis. As a teacher, it is not politically correct to acknowledge this or to share this view of education.
I have spoken with students and teachers from Florida, North Carolina, California and Pennsylvania who have shared with me that their public schools are currently dealing with the same problems as well.
Sadly, this has become a problem that affects not only our society as a whole but the school environment where we are supposed to be educating students for the future.
It is no longer an environment that I wish to tolerate. It’s unhealthy and crushes the spirit. In writing this I am speaking only for myself. Others may not find the current school environment that offensive; perhaps they are younger than I am and do not find the vulgar language and disrespect I see and hear on a daily basis disgusting and demeaning.
Many teachers who are approaching retirement are just trying to hang on long enough to reach full retirement. I can no longer be one of those. Life is too short, time is precious, and no one deserves to be subjected to this.
This is not, nor should it be, a reflection on all students. It is not. There are many students who look toward the adults in the building to enforce the rules and change the school climate to one where they feel safe and look forward to coming to school.
However, the voices of these students cannot be heard over the disruptions caused by the many who do not desire this or who have not been raised to be understanding and respectful of others.
As parents, it is our job to prepare students for school and society. We are our child’s first teacher. From us they should be learning how they are expected to act in school, on the playgrounds, in the hallways and in the classroom.
They should not come to school believing it’s OK to hit, throw things, destroy property or swear at their teachers. Sadly, in today’s school environment this often begins in first grade. If they are doing this in first grade, then it’s their parents who have failed. It’s not politically correct to say that today, either, but it’s the truth.
It’s the parents’ job to begin the reading and writing process before their child gets to school. Parents have a responsibility to themselves, their child and to the society we all share to see to this. It’s what being a parent is all about.
Being a parent is not an easy job; I understand this. I am a parent also. It requires patience, diligence, standing up when necessary and holding them to account when it’s called for. I am not my child’s friend; I am their parent.
Students learn from our examples. As teachers, paraeducators, administrators and coaches, it is our job to guide and model what is acceptable behavior and to be accountable for our actions, as well as to enforce the rules when students break them.
If I used the language students freely use today in the hallways and classrooms of our schools, I would be fired before the day was out and rightly so. And yet students today are rarely if ever spoken to. Today, students really do rule the school.
The student’s handbook in all Vermont public schools states that foul language will not be tolerated. However, it’s more than tolerated; it’s completely overlooked and so common many students do not even realize they are using it. Where do they get the idea that they can use that language with impunity? I don’t know.
However, when adults use that language around them, whether it be their parents, or their coaches, then why wouldn’t these students believe it’s OK to use it anywhere they want to themselves? The school cannot stop parents from using it around their children, but they can stop coaches from doing it. The same should go for anyone else employed by the school who will be teaching students. Coaches are supposed to be building character, teaching ethics, fair play, how to win and how to lose, how to respect each other and their opponents.
When coaches use the same language students are using today in school hallways and classrooms, they have forfeited any right they have to be around these students. In fact, their behavior contributes to the tension and poor learning environment that permeate our public schools today.
I recently communicated with Rebecca Holcombe, Vermont’s secretary of education on this topic. In an article in the Rutland Herald, Ms. Holcombe commented on the low test scores in Vermont and why she felt this was happening. She has decided the state will send out teams to conduct field visits at Vermont schools to get a more complete understanding of how schools are addressing the needs of more vulnerable students.
I emailed Ms. Holcombe and expressed my concern that one of the major problems facing education in Vermont public schools was the school climate and the learning environment. I was surprised to get a quick response. We emailed twice before Ms. Holcombe ended our correspondence by not responding.
Response No. 1: “Dear Mr. Laramie, Thank you for taking the time to write. We actually do take the problem and responsibility for teaching students positive and appropriate social skills very seriously. We are also very concerned with students’ capacity for self-regulation and executive function (regulating their behavior and emotions and managing their learning). I agree with you that when children can’t manage their own behavior and emotions, they not only can’t do well in school and in life beyond, but they also disrupt the learning and success of others.
“Public schools serve all students who come to their doors. Children need to be taught. For some children, these schools are their best and only chance to develop the social skill set that enables them to function in civic life and the work place. I agree this is a critical priority.”
The problem is that students are not asked to manage their behaviors or manage their learning. Many behave exactly how they want or feel at the moment and still expect to be given a passing grade. This does not solve the problem, and in fact only exacerbates and compounds it. It certainly does not help them to function in civic life and the workplace.
Response No. 2: “You are correct that a safe and healthy school has a direct correlation on study achievement, both academically and social/emotionally. I agree strongly with you on this priority. Thank you for reaching out. I have shared your email internally, and we will reflect on how we can better respond to your concerns.” I emailed Ms. Holcombe back a third time, but up until now she has failed to respond. She clearly did not want to consider my suggestions, though I offered to meet with her to discuss them.
She did offer up a couple of suggestions, though it’s my experience they are not based in reality, nor do they have the smallest chance of success. In AA people will tell you the program is easy but hard.
The answers to the problems that face us in Vermont public schools are the same — they are easy but hard. We are the adults. We have to accept the responsibility that we have asked for and do what we know is right, even if it’s not easy.
School handbooks say that foul language will not be tolerated. Do we as teachers and administrators mean that, or is it just for show? If we mean it, and we should, then we should immediately stop tolerating it. This does not mean when we hear it we say “Language” and go on about our business. This means there are consequences for using it — real consequences: suspension, detention, not restorative action. It’s called detention, and it’s meant to detain students for a reason.
Allowing students to use foul and vulgar language without consequence or by simply saying “language,” which is not a consequence, sets the tone for the rest of the school environment. If students realize they can use any language they want with impunity, then other behaviors that were once unacceptable now become acceptable.
Today, behaviors teachers and administrators thought they would never accept have become commonplace; we have become so desensitized and shell-shocked that today any behavior can be overlooked or justified. Substitute teachers I know have shared with me which schools in Rutland County they won’t sub in because they don’t feel safe.
Vermont public schools are at a crossroads. The intolerable behaviors that we see today are driving more and more teachers out of education. Many teachers leave before their first five years. I know others who have left after six, 10 and 12, some in far shorter time than that.
I hope those who read this, especially teachers and taxpayers, take it seriously and begin to demand change and accountability. Please, don’t deride it as just another frustrated, burnt-out, bitter teacher. I have many fond memories of students and colleagues. Students who I am still in touch with and who I probably learned more from than they did from me and colleagues whom I still count as some of the greatest people I have ever met.
Charles Laramie lives in Fair Haven.