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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What I Learned from Teaching about People, Democrats, and Republicans

"Red" was giving me a very hard time. I won't outline Red's offenses here, but they were bad. I had to pull Red aside for a long, harsh talk. I had to send Red an email threatening hellfire and damnation.

It was pretty clear that Red hated me. I overheard Red talking about me with another student. Oh. The. Hate.

That was just fine by me. I hated Red, too. I joke with my students, "I hate all my students equally." Because I think it's corny to say "I love all my students equally." I really hated Red more, though.

One reason I hated Red was that Red was forcing me to be a harsh, unsmiling, disciplinarian, my least favorite role. It's a lot of hard work. Being a disciplinarian requires focus and concentration, energy I'd rather devote to intellectual activity, rather than to cracking the whip.

I cracked the whip, though. I cracked the whip because that is my job, and I really believe that that is my best service to Red.

I thought Red would cut and run. I was surprised to see Red continuing to come to class.

Red settled down.

I began to forget that Red had ever given me a problem. I began to notice Red's beautiful smile and sparkly eyes.

Late in the semester, Red came to me with some work. I had a look at it. Red pointed to a certain spot in the paper, and said, "I was going to make this mistake here, but I heard your voice inside my head, and I didn't make that mistake."

Of course my heart glowed, but I didn't show any expression on my face.

Later, Red came to me with the same piece of work. Red had made some changes I asked for.

I read the revised work, and realized I'd give it an A right then and there, but I didn't want to say that, because other students had not handed in their work yet. Also, since Red had improved the work so much, and this was just an intermediary version of it, and Red had plans to work on it some more, I didn't want to say, "Excellent, finished; I'll give you an A now."

I wanted Red to keep going, as Red obviously wanted to do. To see how far Red could take this paper. So I resolved to withhold some praise, for now.

When I raised my head after I'd finished reading, all I said was, "That was pretty good."

Red's face burst into a beautiful smile; Red's eyes sparkled.

"Hearing what you just said felt so good," Red said.


"Billy" was a good student, but then made one false move that should have meant not only failing my class, but perhaps being expelled from school, if I reported it all the way up the chain of command.

I put on the costume I have to put on at such moments – bulletproof armor. I hardened my heart. I let the hammer down. I allowed not a drop of warmth or familiarity into my speech. It was as if Billy and I had never met.

Billy cried. (I don't want to say if Billy is male or female, but I have made male students cry. It doesn't feel particularly good – or bad. I don't plan to make students cry. I plan to uphold standards. It's just part of the job.)

Billy trembled.

I let some time pass. Let the consequences sink in.

Billy approached me. Asked me to withhold punishment. Asked to be allowed to make good.

Billy made good. Very, very, very good. Billy achieved something so academically impressive that I wish I could describe it here. To describe it would violate Billy's anonymity, so I cannot. Let's just say that Billy performed in such a manner that Billy could have competed with people much more highly placed in the academic hierarchy.


Red and Billy are both "disadvantaged" students. Non-white. Students white people like me are supposed to pity. Students about whom we are supposed to have low expectations, for whom we are supposed to exercise lower standards.


I am talking about two real students, Red and Billy. But this happens just about *every semester.*

Students come in to my class expecting to perform to low standards. From my syllabus, they learn that I have higher expectations.

Some chafe. Many drop out. Many hate my guts.

Some stick around and – and this is the point of this whole post – they raise their expectations to the level that is asked of them.

The bar rises, and, after some resistance, they raise their performance level.


Want people to do better?

Here's a thought: Why not ask them to do better?

Why not stop rewarding bad behavior?

Why not reward good behavior?

Why not get rid of white guilt and pity as ways of treating people?


My syllabi, the documents students receive on the first day of class, are six pages long, single space, small font. One typical syllabus is four thousand words long.

I tell students that they must arrive in class on time, and the consequences for arriving late. I tell students that they cannot sleep in class. That they lose points for not being polite. When assignments are due. How assignments are to be formatted. That they can't wear baseball caps in class. That they should not send me emails telling me their excuse for not meeting criteria.

I tell students EXACTLY where the bar is.

As the semester progresses, I devote a lot of time to policing the bar. It's a lot of work, work many teachers would prefer not to do. It takes time and a willingness to be hated.

Some read just the first half of the first page of the syllabus, discover that they can't wear baseball caps in class, and walk out.

Some resolve to meet expectations. Then, about a week and a half into the semester, they start sending me sad emails. It was raining. Their car wouldn't start. The printer they tried to use on campus five minutes before class began didn't work as expected. It was somebody's birthday and there was a big party.

I am mean. I tell them that excuses don't count. I make some allowances … but these students often disappear on their own, no matter how many allowances I make. They have some internal clock that will not allow them too many successes, too much good feeling. And so they fold and disappear.

So I tell students, on day one, in the lengthy syllabus, what is expected of a successful student. And then I assume what is for me an unnatural role, enforcer of standards. And I am hated.

But I do my best not to move that bar.

And, every semester, there are students who perform up to that level.


I used to be very "nice." I used to weep when students wept. I used to spend money on students. I used to try to solve their problems. If a student couldn't make it to class because of a colicky baby, I'd offer to babysit the infant so the student could do the work.

The nicer I was to students, the less demand I made of them, the more likely they were to fail.

Yes. Really. The nicer I was to students, to lower the standards, the more money and time I spent, the more likely the student was to fail.

It's as if the student turned into a jellyfish. Stopped doing *anything.* Just assuming I would take care of everything.

The opposite is not true. It's not true that the more demanding I am, the more likely a student is to succeed.

Rather, this is what is true – I never know which student is going to turn out to be a Red or a Billy at the end of the semester. I never know which student is going to respond to a raised bar with a raised performance.

But my being a strict upholder of standards – a "psycho bitch" or, of course, a "Nazi" as some students would have it – allows the Reds and the Billies to improve their game and reach a level of performance there was no room for, otherwise.

As long as teachers look at students like Red and Billy and decide, "Non-white, from a deprived neighborhood; it's my job to pity this person and have low expectations of him or her," there is no room for Red or Billy to clear a high bar.


Politics? I used to be a leftist. So far left I was a fellow traveler for a short while in my misspent youth.

Moving to the right was a glacially slow, deliberative process.

One of my steps to the right was taken after I realized how my pity approach to teaching was not serving my students.

Is there an analogy here? Of course there is. I and others in cities like Paterson, Camden, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, etc, are surrounded by it.

I used to think that the Democrats were the party that served the poor. One day I heard David Horowitz speak. At the time, I thought Horowitz was comparable to Satan.

Horowitz said, "Look at the worst cities in your state – Paterson, Newark, and Camden. They've all had Democratic governance for decades."

Ding! The sound of a bell going off.

The right stands for placing a clear bar where all can see it and hone their performance to reach that bar.

The left focuses, not on the athlete, but on the referee. The referee must jettison standards, must pity, must allow. Because, after all, this athlete is African American or Hispanic, and can't do as well.

Not surprisingly, Democratic polices have resulted in lowered standards of behavior.


  1. "That they can't wear baseball caps in class."


    1. Liron, because they are appropriate attire for a sporting event, but not for an indoor classroom. A gentleman does not address a lady while wearing a hat indoors.