The new rowdiness: Teachers chalk it up to changing times

April 07, 1993|By Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Respect is no longer a given between students and their teachers.

It is something the teacher must earn.

That's right. The teacher.

"The teachers who care about our opinions get respect," said Jesus Ruiz, a 15-year-old California high school student.

Added Chris Monzon, a classmate: "The teachers who don't say anything when you talk in class don't get respect. When the teachers give you too much leeway, students take advantage and some wind up talking back to their teachers."

Times have definitely changed, as educators across the country are learning.

"It used to be you had to earn disrespect," said George Butterfield, deputy director of the National School Safety Center in California. "You generally got respect until you earned something otherwise. Now you get no slack whatsoever."

Although kids have been rebellious through time immemorial (Socrates complained about the lack of respect his students showed him), what some are finding startling is the intensity of the aggression these days.

In a report on bullying, the National Association of School Psychologists said that 12 percent of secondary school teachers, or 125,000, are threatened with physical harm in a typical month. Of those, 5,200 are actually attacked.

"We have a trend here of an increase in disturbing behaviors," said Kathy Durbin, a Charlotte, N.C., school counselor and president of the National Association of School Psychologists, based in Silver Spring, Md.

"We all have conflicts, but you don't take out a gun and start shooting people," she said. "It's very frightening, very scary."

If those disturbing behaviors aren't altered while the students are still young, Ms. Durbin said, they will grow into a generation of dysfunctional adults without social skills or a way to solve problems without using violence.

"It's our responsibility to teach them an other way and lead them in that direction," she said.

One White Plains, N.Y., counselor has coined such disrespectful behavior as irreverence, confrontation and rebellion as "the Bart Simpson syndrome."

"Oh, no," joked Matt Groening, the creator of "The Simpsons." "Now it's a syndrome?"

Mr. Groening's character has been the subject of controversy before, notably when some school principals banned the wearing of a T-shirt that tagged the spike-haired adolescent as an "underachiever and proud of it."

"Seriously, one of the things we try to do in 'The Simpsons' is show that Bart is programmed for failure by the educational system, which doesn't really care about individuals or boredom," he said.

"It expects students to spend years in neat little rows bored out of their minds," Mr. Groening said. "It may not be the response you want, but rebelliousness is certainly an obvious response to a culture where the thing most kids have to look forward to is cruising the malls."

Lynn Beck, a UCLA assistant professor of administration, curriculum and teaching studies, said rebellion is common as adolescents try to sort out their identity and get a general idea of who they are.

"What has changed is the ways in which it's manifested," she said. "The threshold of what we called acceptable behavior has changed a little bit so that the Bart Simpson kind of behaviors is more commonly practiced. We see them happening more than we used to."

How young people respond to adults has changed over the years. "There are more different kinds of interaction that don't receive punishment or disapproval than there used to be," Ms. Beck said.

But "I'm not sure it's limited to the way young people respond to their teachers," Ms. Beck said. "It's a widespread pattern in all of our lives. It's more typical of all of society."

Across the country, there is an erosion of gentility and politeness that once seemed to characterize American society, even as recently as 15 years ago, said UCLA education professor Aimee Dorr.

"I think the whole culture has changed considerably from what we were once, from standards of politeness to the degree in which teachers are held in respect," she said.

In recent memory, teachers lived in the communities in which they taught and would frequently run into parents in the grocery store or church, Ms. Dorr said.

"It's harder to act up in school because you know the teacher is going to talk to your parents," she said.

Add to that more sarcasm, anger and disrespect in the children's homes, Ms. Beck said. "It may be the young people are receiving this kind of behavior," she said. "They may be giving back what they've been receiving."

And while she doesn't mean to let kids off the hook for their belligerent attitudes, Ms. Beck said that adults need to be more responsible. "If we don't act different, then it's difficult to expect them to," she said.

Which echoes Mr. Groening's own sentiments.

"If you don't want your kid to act like Bart Simpson, stop acting like Homer Simpson -- that's the simplest way of putting it," he said.

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