Today's students earn failing grade in 4th R: respect

ALICE STEINBACH

April 22, 1993|By ALICE STEINBACH

She was only 5 feet tall, but when Miss Dennis told a student in our ninth-grade class to do something -- or to stop doing something -- she took on the stature of King Kong.

"You want to learn something from this class?" Miss Dennis would yell out at some inattentive student. "Then pay attention to what's going on here. Connect! You are not Switzerland -- neutral, uninvolved. Think Italy!"

Miss Dennis said things like that. And when Miss Dennis talked, students listened.

We listened, by the way, not because we feared her -- although she did have all the traits of an out-of-control terrier -- but because we respected her. Sure, it was a drag that she expected each of us to do our best every day, and that she didn't hesitate to use discipline to help us achieve that goal, but the bottom line was: We respected her.

Now, however, it seems that the traditional idea of the teacher as an authority figure who merits respect -- at least during school hours -- is on its way out.

Also on its way out is the mutual understanding between teacher and student that discipline -- in the service of learning -- is not only acceptable but desirable.

TTC Increasingly, today's students are abandoning the notion that teachers merit automatic respect. And, increasingly, students are replacing such automatic respect with . . . automatic disrespect.

At least that's what many teachers, principals and others who study educational trends are reporting in city after city across the nation.

George Cohen, an official in the White Plains, N.Y., school district, calls it the "Bart Simpson syndrome" and says it's affected many of the secondary-school students in his own classrooms.

"You're supposed to be irreverent, confrontational, rebellious," he told the New York Times. And when today's students are given an assignment, he added, "there's a disbelief that somehow they're going to be held accountable for getting it in on time. It's that attitude that drives a lot of us nuts."

But the disrespect for teachers goes beyond just an attitude. Increasingly, it is being expressed in ways that range from verbal expressions of defiance and profanity to physical violence.

Of course, kids have always tried to take advantage of teachers -- who doesn't recall the substitute-teacher syndrome? -- but those who study such social trends believe that an important line may have been crossed. One that reflects, perhaps, a decrease in civility in the larger community.

And, perhaps, a lessening contact between today's kids and adults as well. Not only between students and teachers but between parent and child. And it's not too difficult to figure out that what's replacing the loosening of the parent-child ties is the tightening of the bonds between kids and . . . other kids.

It's a situation that seems to have created an intense peer culture. A "Lord of the Flies" culture: one in which adult influence means very little and peer pressure means a great deal.

We've seen that kind of pressure in the negative attitude expressed by many kids toward a friend who values doing well in school. And we may now be seeing that kind of peer pressure in the current trend of "dissing" one's teachers.

But the important question beneath the rise of disrespect in the school setting is this: How do we reconnect kids to adults? To parents, of course, but also to other adult role models. If we don't, how are children to learn about the adult values of discipline and respect?

The problem is that many adults today seem overwhelmed by their own lives. Parents may mean well but simply can't come through for a child. As a result, more and more kids have to take care of themselves. And look to their peers for cues on ways to act.

Many kids end up not respecting their parents. Or any adults, for that matter.

Worse yet, many kids have never been shown respect by an adult. They have been treated as objects and, as a result, often don't even understand the concept of respect.

And then we wonder why they don't respect parents and teachers and policemen and all the authority figures present in society.

The classroom, of course, is a microcosm, a miniature universe with all the challenges of the world outside. It's where we learn to express our values and apply ourselves. It's not good news for the rest of us that so many of today's kids are flunking out of life as well as school.

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