Wednesday, February 22, 2012

When Students Challenge the System

Teenagers are a rebellious lot. I know - nothing new in that statement. But even more than the obviousness of it is the basic, underlying reason for it. Just as two-year olds are often "selfish" not due to a moral deficiency but more likely due to their recent discovery of the idea of "self", teenagers are just beginning to sense that they have moved from children to adults and thus need to test the boundaries of those new-found powers (remember, a century and a half ago teenagers were in the workforce in industrialized countries).

Every teenager expresses this rebellion in their own way. The "good" kids perhaps break curfew by a few minutes or some other minor act, while the more difficult ones unfortunately get involved in a whole range of behaviors that are far beyond what I want to deal with in this post. Much of this rebellion, at least in its early stages, is generally harmless and is not meant maliciously, and adults would be wise to keep that in mind when being challenged by a headstrong 15-year old.

But what about when the rebellion challenges the system? Here is the issue that is on my mind today that I do not have a great answer to. I work in a middle school, and thus I get to deal with the first years of teenagerhood. In some ways I have it easy - my students are not yet older teenagers dealing with issues of drugs and booze and sex and Lord knows what else, and they are not in a public school environment where they might be dealing with some of those issues already at this age. On the other hand, that natural proclivity towards independence/rebellion still needs an outlet, and that often manifests itself in a litany of minor, just-under-the-radar, you-know-its-wrong-but-I-can't-prove-it type of offenses.

The hardest ones to deal with are the cases when the infraction is not in dispute, but a student challenges the rule itself. An example: In lower grades, there are a variety of rules that can be categorized as rules that restrict or limit freedom of motion. Rules that demand that students be in class or in the lunchroom or in the gym at the right time, that one can only go to the bathroom with a pass, and so on and so forth. In general, these rules make sense for younger children and they are fairly easy to enforce. As students move into Middle School and thus teenagerhood, however, while the rules may still make sense (safety and accountability issues, not having five kids leave a class at once, etc), enforcing them becomes trickier. A random snippet of conversation from an attempt to enforce such rules:

Teacher: Where were you during lunch?
Student: I was in room 101 doing my homework.
Teacher: But you know that the rule of the school is that all students must be in the cafeteria during lunch!
Student: But I needed to do my homework because my aunt is getting married tonight and if I don't do the work now I won't have a chance later!
Teacher: That is very admirable of you to try to stay on top of your work, but we really need to know where every student is - had there been an emergency, no one would have known were to find you.

OK - we are one minute into the conversation and we are already playing the hysterical worst-case scenario card. Let's be honest, at a certain age students are going to be old enough to fend for themselves, especially if they are all of 30 feet away from where they are supposed to be. Who is right in this case? Do the rules have to be enforced unless a specific exemption is given? Can we allow an 8th grader to decide that he or she is mature enough to be treated like an adult? If we begin making exceptions do we open the door for mass chaos? If so, are we keeping everyone in line for the sake of the overall system?

There may or may not be easy answers to these questions. I suppose if you have a firm opinion then the answers are easy. However, we have to consider whether we are committed to finding a balance between running a smooth and safe school and at the same time respecting our students for the adults that they are becoming and that we are helping them to be. Personally, when a response sounds lame or automatic to me, I try not to give it. The quandary then becomes what response should I give? I would love some feedback on this one.


Lisi Gopin said...

Is it so hard to have them ask first? I let my students (also middle schoolers) know that I know they're not little kids anymore, but rules are not random either. If they feel they have a legitimate reason the rules shouldn't apply, I'm happy to listen and if I disagree I tell them why. Does it work with every kid? Of course not, but as you said that's a whole different post :)

Reasoning with kids is one of those things teachers can get away with, that parents usually can't. Just a fact of rebellious life.

Nechama said...

I try not to reason with students. I prefer reflecting their sentiments on the situation until they come up with a solution.