I used to be a classroom teacher. It was a long time ago, when I was fresh out of college. I majored in English with a minor in French, so I needed to take alternative education classes at the local university. I remember navigating my first year of teaching while completing paperwork for a new teacher program and then trekking out to complete college courses for alternative teacher education after work.
It was a busy time, and I was not a good teacher. It took years to get to anything approaching good, and (after eight years) I burned out before I was anywhere near excellent, leaving the profession and taking a salary cut to do so before going to work for the state of Florida. I say this because I have lived the experience of being in the middle school classroom, and I have respect for any teacher who has been able to continue teaching within the constraints of the system’s bureaucracy, the ridiculousness of the standardized assessments and matching standards (at least in Florida), the increased class sizes, and the decreasing respect for educators as professionals that occurs across all levels, from school board officials to principals to parents alike.
Yet I am the parent now, the parent of a middle school student and a high school student, and I’m also one of those parents; I know my children’s strengths and weaknesses, and I want a teacher to be aware of them too. I want a teacher to care. Some do, and quite frankly some don’t; I can tell which is which, and I’m sure the students can too.
On the other hand, it is a hard, hard, job, and there are times when one of my children doesn’t make it any easier.
I picked my son up from wrestling practice the other day, and he said those words that no parent ever likes to hear.
“I think my teacher may be calling you. Or dad. Probably dad because I gave her dad’s cell phone number. But I wanted to let you know.”
And some parents might start yelling at this point, but I didn’t. Part of the reason is that I wanted to hear the story, and my son is one of those people who will tell you the whole story. It’s just a part of his nature.
“Which teacher?” I asked. His grades aren’t great, but he has a tough schedule, and this is the first we’ve heard of any discipline issues.
“Well. Okay. You have to know that at the beginning of the class this girl at my table gave me a sticker. And I didn’t know what to do with it, so I stuck it on my forehead.”
“What kind of sticker was it?”
“A Mickey Mouse sticker.”
“You stuck a Mickey Mouse sticker on your forehead? Okay, just go on.”
“So we were talking about India ink. And my teacher took out these different quills and was telling us about using them to draw with. One student mentioned Harry Potter and how he wanted to use a feather quill to draw with, and that’s when she showed us the peacock feather.”
“The peacock feather. Okay.”
“She said the peacock feather was real. It was from an actual peacock.” He started to giggle. “And then, umm, the girl next to me leans forward and says, ‘She actually pulls peacock feathers off the peacocks?’”
I couldn’t help it. He was in trouble, and we were getting a phone call from the teacher — in high school, no less. But I had this mental image of his middle-aged art teacher sprinting across yards in our suburban area, scooping up a peacock like a football player grabbing a fumbled ball and tucking it into the crook of her arm. Only unlike a football player, she’d have to then reach over with her other hand — how would that work, exactly? — and pluck the precious feathers from the peacock’s tail. I laughed. I laughed harder. I laughed so much my belly hurt, my son laughing with me. As soon as I thought I was done laughing, I would get another mental image of peacock-chasing and the giggles would start again.
Well. That, my son informed me, was exactly the same reaction that his whole table had during his drawing class.
The teacher walked over to this table full of laughing students. Of course, the first thing she saw was the Mickey Mouse sticker on my son’s forehead.
“Take off the sticker,” she said.
Now, here’s what most people do: here’s what I do, what my daughter does, what my husband probably does…we take the sticker off. But this is my son, who lost his math workbook in fifth grade and was afraid to check all the other cubbies like his teacher told him to because, “Mom, we learned that the fourth amendment said you can’t do illegal searches and I think it’s against the law to look in cubbies that belong to other students.”
So instead of complying, my son said, “Didn’t they have a Supreme Court case about this? People wore armbands in class to protest the Vietnam War.”
She said, “Take. The sticker. Off.”
He said, “Well, they got to wear their armbands because it was considered freedom of expression. Why don’t I get to wear my sticker?”
She said, “It’s disruptive.”
“That’s what they said about the armbands.”
“If you don’t take the sticker off, I will call your parents.”
He took the sticker off.
We learned about the five types of power in my Teaching Strategies class during my first year as a teacher. Of course, as a beginning teacher, I wanted to have referent power. But in practice, I really thought legitimate power should be able to do the heavy lifting for me. And coercion and reward are methods any classroom teacher or parent is familiar with.
Do teachers or parents have a responsibility to gain student trust, to earn respect? Do students have a responsibility to be quiet and listen when it’s time for instruction? Can both of these ideas be true?
I don’t actually think that a Mickey Mouse sticker counts as freedom of expression. I think my child was disrupting the class. But I also think that we want to teach students critical thinking skills, but then we want them to stop using those same skills when it means they’re questioning us.
Did I mention my child has to tell the whole story? He kept talking to the teacher.
“Miss, they weren’t laughing about the sticker. They were laughing at the idea of you chasing a peacock.”
She said, “Well, it’s obvious that you’re not educated enough to know that I don’t pluck the feathers. I pick them up off the ground.”
This made him mad, the fact that she said he wasn’t educated, but (thankfully) he didn’t say anything. She continued.
“And I always ask the people before I take peacock feathers from their yard.”
Our whole family is still wondering about how that works, exactly.
At any rate, the teacher kept my son after class and took down my husband’s phone number. But when she called, the conversation was about how my son had been disruptive by mentioning the Vietnam War at an inappropriate time during class. There was no mention of stickers or freedom of expression. There was definitely no mention of peacocks.
“I just don’t want you and Dad to be mad at me,” my son said.
And I feel gratified that he cares what we think. We talked to him about keeping a low profile, about how we need him to make this go away, how we will be upset if this continues and he gets a referral to the office. He didn’t like the idea of, well, shutting up, but he agreed to do it.
Is this in his best interest? In the short term, yes. In the long term, I’m not so sure.
I feel lucky to have some measure of referent power when it comes to my children. I am glad they think and question authority, even though outright challenges to authority make me uncomfortable. I don’t think I’m good at teaching respect — not when I’m dying laughing — but I do expect certain outright forms of respect (listening to the other person without name-calling, for example).
Still, my son has the idea that legitimate power is not as legitimate as other forms of power, and I don’t know how to change that part of his nature or if it makes sense to try.
All I know is that I’m still not sure how she gets those peacock feathers.