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Teaching the Unteachable

In response to:

Children Writing: The Story of an Experiment from the November 17, 1966 issue

To the Editors:

Beautiful, baby, really beautiful. I dig Herbert Kohl. He really tells it the way it is, man. His way of grooving reading is soul food, baby. None of that deprived, disadvantaged shit. Dig how he gets us to tell it the way it really is?”

And then what? Where does Kohl’s motivated student wind up? He goes on to the next class and probably drops behind in reading a few more years as he meets the “regular” curriculum. The sad fact of life is that New York City schools are not prepared to do more than experiment in the most minute ways when almost all the necessary research has been done on the most effective methods of teaching “the unteachables.”

The More Effective Schools program is an example of a new attempt at solving the problems of the ghetto schools and has had a moderate degree of success. Smaller classes, increased numbers of specialists in subject areas and psychological services, and increased staff and community involvement in the school program. The moderate degree of success has been mainly the result of the smaller class size (maximum of 22) while the psychological services and community-staff involvement in the total school program has been a near disaster. Emotionally disturbed youngsters receive minimal care and the usual bureaucratic run-around—usually resulting in their being thrown back into the classroom to create havoc for the total learning situation. Democratic community-staff involvement is still a myth mainly because principals don’t give a damn about the community or staff as long as the status quo gives them a relatively quiet atmosphere. The teachers themselves are easily intimidated by their “superiors” and the United Federation of Teachers has yet to find the answer to the problem of how to create teacher leadership…

Thus, the problem of educating the “unteachables” becomes doubly difficult. Assuming we create revolutionary new methods of teaching the ghetto youngster and help him move rapidly ahead in reading and comprehension (an assumption still to be proved—cool Kohl or no cool Kohl) we still have to face up to the reality of a society demanding academic credentials set up by a status quo system dating back to an artistocratic conception of education. Where, then, do our students, prepared à la Kohl, fit in? Will their compositions of junkies be accepted by the College Entrance Board? Will the colleges change their programs to help these youngsters? Does society really give a damn whether the masses of “unteachables” succeed or fail?…

Some specifics: Stop turning out instant teachers in the hope that any warm body is capable of sitting on a class for 6 hours and 20 minutes while maintaining an aura of sanity for all concerned. Force every supervisor and administrator including the Superintendent of Schools to teach a class at least once a day so that some form of reality enters their waking hours. Give the teachers a truly democratic atmosphere to create curriculum and buy them everything they ask for. Tell supervisors once and for all that their function is to assist teachers. Decentralize schools of education into the ghetto areas and bring neophyte teachers into the schools as early as possible. Demand an active, functioning school board for every school composed of the teachers, the parents, the professors, the administrators, and all other interested parties. Stop sitting on all the research that has already been done—send every teacher a digest of the most effective methods and materials and set up demonstration lessons in every school. Tell the union to stop giving us clichés about democracy in education and to begin to prepare teachers to practice democratic techniques. Give the teacher the same dignity we give a young Park Avenue secretary—bathrooms, professional libraries, cafeterias, coffee breaks, and all the rest. Hire more aides to relieve teachers of ALL non-professional duties….

Bernard Flicker

Department of Education

Hunter College, New York

Herbert R Kohl replies:

I agree with Dr. Coles about the rarity of communication between teachers and students but would go further and accuse the school of making such communication almost impossible. In order to be honest with the children and have them say what they think, the teacher must take risks that make him “unprofessional” in the eyes of his associates. For example, according to the unspoken code of “professional behavior” in most schools, no teacher ever admits to a child that another teacher is bad, wrong, abusive, incompetent, etc. All judgment about the staff and school must be suspended in communication with the children. Moreover no teacher will ever support the complaint of a child against another teacher. In the child’s eyes this has to make the teacher untrustworthy.

I had this problem in the class which I described in my essay. In the school-yard a third-grade class lined up next to mine. The teacher was brutal and insulting. She kicked the children, pulled their hair, and mocked them. I was horrified but felt powerless to intervene. It was made clear to me that no teacher or administrator would support me if I attempted to stop her, and that my job, not hers, would be at stake.

My class was outraged, first at her, then at me. They demanded I stop her and seeing me shy away from the whole situation they turned sullen and silent in class. This went on for several days before I could bring myself to talk about the problem with the children. I told them of my hatred of the teacher and of my dilemma. I broke the code at the risk of my job (and then only partially, for I didn’t stop her) because the school as an institution was less important to me than what went on in it. On another occasion I was thrown out of a school for defending a child against a teacher who was abusing him. The official report of the incident accuses me of “unprofessional behavior.”

It is also part of the code that the teacher has a right to judge the child a failure while the child has no way of protesting the teacher’s failure. The child can be called lazy, careless, indifferent, but will not be listened to if he says the same of his teacher. Usually he will be punished and labeled a “troublemaker.” Unfortunately parents are usually the allies of the teacher against the child.

I have seen many teachers in ghetto schools resort to mechanical judgments as a means of protecting themselves from facing their own failures. They see in the environment, the family, the home, the native intelligence of the child, the reasons for the children’s failures. It is always thought of that way—“their children’s failures”; but in fact it usually is a failure in the classroom, which is as much their responsibility as their pupils. When students fail to respond, it is usually not so much because they can’t as because the teacher hasn’t offered them anything to respond to. This applies as much to Mrs. Arnold’s “norm” as to “them” or to the “gifted.”

These thoughts lead me to conclude that one of the things that must be examined is the whole notion of “professionalism” in the schools. Does a model borrowed from the AMA function to protect the teacher from his responsibilities toward his pupils by creating false loyalties to a “profession”? Does it function to maintain incompetents in the schools, to unite the staff against the students, and to promote a myth of special educational techniques and knowledge that has no substance? It is not by making the teacher more professional (whatever that means), by giving him “bathrooms, professional libraries, cafeterias, coffee breaks and all the rest” as Dr. Flicker suggests, that we will solve the problems of our schools. If there is any hope or any solution it will have to come from teachers discarding their silly notions of professionalism, stopping the pretense that they can be like doctors and lawyers (for whatever reason they may want to), and assuming the burden of honesty toward each other and their pupils. They must begin to talk about what really goes on in their classrooms and schools and consider whether it is worth preserving through the pretense of professionalism an institution which at present does more harm than good.

Finally, Dr. Flicker is right about my students. What they learned in my classroom is now of little help to most of them in coping with school or the streets. Most of them have not made it and they are only sixteen years old.

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