We need to share the job of raising our children

December 09, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

According to an African proverb, "It takes the entire village to raise a child." If the city embraced that philosophy, we would not have a problem with children run amok, with violence in the classroom, with teachers too terrorized by their students to teach.

Unfortunately, we have not embraced that philosophy.

Here, too many parents have abdicated their responsibilities. And too many of the rest of us are convinced that the offspring of irresponsible parents are not our concern.

That is why we find ourselves locked in a fruitless power struggle with children and young adults.

Baltimore is one of the leading jurisdictions when it comes to suspensions and expulsions. In addition, we incarcerate a higher percentage of our young than virtually any other city in the country.

And since this country incarcerates more children than any other nation, Charm City probably is a world leader in that category.

Yet, teachers here still do not feel safe. The public continues to demand stricter punishment for disruptive kids. Those parents who possess the resources continue to flee to private schools or to the suburbs.

All of this is by way of follow-up to my column last week on the Baltimore Teachers Union's task force on school violence.

I argued then that if children are running amok in city schools, it is because the adults in the system have lost control. I suggested that the task force focus its attention on the attitudes and behaviors of the grown-ups, rather than the children. I observed that a teacher's fear in the classroom may, in part, be an indicator of incompetence.

Many teachers agreed with several of those points. But they took great exception to the view that their fears are not justified.

"You have to write an apology right away because what you did is, you gave a slap in the face to virtually every teacher in this state," says a suburban teacher.

"I have had students shove me," she says. "I have had students threaten to 'get' me. There have been some students who simply have been out of control. Just because I felt that way doesn't make me an incompetent teacher."

Teachers throughout the metropolitan area say they must deal with increasing numbers of troubled children, who seem to be getting more and more violent. During the past few days I have heard of several instances where teachers have been shoved or punched; where students have thrown books or other heavy objects at teachers; or have cursed them in language that most adults would hesitate to use.

"The point you missed, is that we are not equipped to deal with this without support and we are not getting that support -- not from the parents, not from school administrators, not from school boards," says the suburban teacher. "Yet most of the teachers I know remain as caring and as committed to their children as ever. You cannot dismiss what is happening in the classroom with a sweeping slap at our competence."

The teachers have a point: Children are bearing the brunt of the economic and social disruptions in our society, and classroom teachers are bearing the brunt of the damage to our children.

But pushing for harsher punishments against children is an abdication of our communal responsibilities to raise children.

We can reduce violence in the classroom by providing greater support to troubled families, by making job training and treatment for substance abuse among our social priorities. We can reduce violence by providing more alternatives to suspension and expulsion -- for instance, more alternative classrooms for disruptive students. It would help the situation if we reduced the student-adult ratio in classrooms through the greater use of teaching assistants and volunteers.

And, frankly, we do need to look at teacher competence. Some teachers I spoke with used far too broad a brush when painting the children in their classrooms as "thugs" and "savages." Far too many teachers seemed willing to dismiss, as lost causes, far too many kids.

But it is not the teachers' burden to carry alone.

The Africans said it best: It takes the entire village to raise a child. We will not reduce violence in the classroom until we embrace that wisdom with heart and soul.

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