A Spoonful of Hatred Makes Education Go Down

Sometimes I hate my students.

And that’s actually a good thing.

First, let me affix the boilerplate so as to avoid any whiff of morally reprehensible heresy that goes against the company line: MY STUDENTS ARE WONDERFUL PEOPLE YOUNG AMERICANS AND IT IS A JOY TO SEE THEIR BRIGHT SHINING FACES AS THEY GREET ME IN THE MORNING AND I LOVE TO SEE THE SPARK IN THEIR EYES AS THEY LEARN SOMETHING NEW AND I AM INSPIRED EVERY DAY BY THE THOUGHT THAT I COULD BE HELPING THEM REACH THEIR POTENTIAL I AM MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN THE LIVES OF YOUNG PEOPLE AND THUS HELPING TO CREATE OUR FUTURE.

There. Now, as I was saying, sometimes I really can’t stand the little stinkers. I don’t mean because they’re terrible, or because I’m such a cloistered saint that their vileness taints my purity; they’re just kids, and I’m not, and so they can be awful people and I’m not currently awful enough to be able to ignore their awfulness or cover it with my own. I would have done that when I was their age; I was awful, too, no question, far worse than most of them are now.

But my students tell me, outright, frequently, that my class is boring, that my subject is pointless, that I don’t work hard enough or do the right things as a teacher (By which they mean “You don’t do the work for me and then give me an A.”). They lie, they cheat, they steal. They waste my time, and then get snotty with me because they think I’m wasting theirs. They whine, they complain, they try to intimidate and threaten and manipulate me into doing what they want me to do. They are deeply selfish and insensitive to the feelings of others: they are racist, sexist, xenophobic, hypocritical, hypercritical, ultraviolent, lazy on a scale that can’t be measured or even contemplated by those who aren’t themselves on the scale.

And they’re just kinda gross. They smell bad, some of them. And you should see them eat. Ick.

Now here’s the good side of all of that: because of all of those things, I have very little trouble telling them No. It’s real easy with some of the things they ask me. “Can we watch this (probably inappropriate) YouTube clip?” “No.” The best thing with this exchange, which occurs almost daily, is that they have no actual argument. The most common rejoinder is “Aw, come on,” which is probably about as effective as yelling “Hey baby!” at a female passerby: just like that woman never swoons and says, “Be still, my beating heart,” I never say, “Well, okay, let me look up that NWA video.” Same when they say – as they often do – “Can we just, like, do nothing today?” I have no problem at all saying no to that. And not even because I always want to do productive things; I generally do, but of course I have my moments. No, the reason I can always say no to the siren song of sloth is, I don’t want to hang out with my students. If I’m going to flop on my backside and do nothing more strenuous than exhaling, I’d much rather be at home, where my dog and my couch and my coffee are. The last place I want to be is in that ugly, uncomfortable classroom with all of those people whom, as I have been saying at length, I don’t really like.

I’d rather make them work. It is frequently true that I force them to continue learning not because I think it is valuable or even merely necessary; it is, but the reason I keep teaching them even when they are at their lazy-assed whiniest is, because making them work is my revenge. I torture them with learning. I keep reading, and reading, and reading, even when they just can’t take any more. If they really get on my nerves, I will work right up to the bell and even beyond the bell, and then I’ll assign them homework. I don’t have a work ethic: I have a revenge ethic, and the worst thing I can do to my teenaged students is make them think, and make them work.

And, see, that means they learn, which is good for them. And they suffer, which is good for me. It’s win-win.

There’s more to this, of course. (It’s just so much fun to rip on my students, and talk about torturing them with literature. Hey –I just realized that “torture” and “literature” have the same last letters. There’s an opportunity there. Maybe a rhyming couplet? Maybe a portmanteau? Literatorture?) There are serious problems with the company line that most teachers – no, that essentially all teachers – toe – no, that they lie down on, clasp their hands together, and enter into a meditative trance akin to suspended animation, a state from which they will never arise. Okay, that got too weird.

My point is this. Teaching has a required orthodoxy. Teachers teach because they love their students. They call their students their children. They say everything I joked about above, about the future, and making a difference, and seeing the spark – though I more often hear the loathsome phrase “A-Ha moment,” which just makes me want to start caterwauling “Taaaake ooooon meeeeeeeeeee (Take! On! Me!) TAAAAAAAAKKKKKEEEEEE MEEEEEEEEEEEEE OOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNN (Take! On! Me!) IIIIII’LLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL BBBEEEEEEEEEE GGOOOOOOOOOOOOOONNNNEEE!!! AND (mumble mumble I don’t actually know the words to this part but who cares deepbreath) EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

You get the point.

Teachers always, always say that they don’t do it for the money. They do it because they believe in the cause, they believe in the importance of education, in the value of helping young people, of passing on knowledge to the next generation and helping to make our world a better place, one child at a time. I hear teachers talking constantly about what the children need: how teachers are better parents to some of them than their actual parents; how some of them don’t ever get to have fun unless a teacher sacrifices an evening or a weekend to some overnight field trip; how these kids shouldn’t miss this opportunity that somehow requires more effort from a teacher than it does from any of the students whose lives are being enriched. If a teacher says anything different, then we get funny looks. We get frowns and furrowed brows and awkward attempts at segues away from the conversational minefield we just stepped into. I assume we get talked about when we’re not in the room, since teachers – professional busybodies and judgmental critics – are inveterate gossips.

I know because I’ve been getting those looks, and saying those heterodox things, for years. Now that my wife, who is braver, more honest, and less patient than I am, has joined me in teaching, she gets the looks even more often. I think she also gets them worse because she is a woman, and therefore expected to be motherly; I think some of my fellow teachers excuse my anti-student bile by calling it something on the order of “tough love.” My students like me, so surely the smack I talk about them couldn’t be real; I must be exaggerating. Kidding! Oh, that wacky Humphrey! No wonder the kids love his class!

Here’s the truth: not all kids love my class. Some freaking hate it, and hate me. Often (Not always) they are the ones who receive my ill-treatment. (“Not always” because sometimes the very worst little twits like me and like my class. Sometimes kids hate me for entirely different reasons, like how I waste time or teach material they don’t like or find useful. Some of them don’t think I’m funny, even think I’m rude. Can you imagine?) They resent that I don’t treat them like special lil angels, because that’s what they get from almost every one of their other teachers.

And that is, of course, the problem. My students aren’t bad people, not at all; they really are sweet kids at heart, and most of them are bright and capable. They’re just kids: they’re lazy, and entitled, and think much too much of themselves. What they need is a dose of reality.

What they get is teachers who coddle them because they’re special lil angels.

We shouldn’t do it. We should treat students like actual human beings: we should expect them to act correctly, to be responsible, to think and act for themselves in their own best interest. And we should do the same. That’s how we can actually help them to reach their potential: make them work. Make them rely on themselves, rather than doing everything for them. We should realize that at some point those lil angels will leave our school, and they will be around people then who – don’t love them. Don’t coddle them. Don’t think they’re special lil angels and do everything for them. If they have no teachers like me, then they will be hurt and confused when their college professors don’t care about them, or when their bosses insist that they show up on time even if they’re not feeling happy that morning. My boss has never taken me out into the hall to have a heart-to-heart. “You seem down, are you feeling okay? Everything okay at home?” This is not something I have ever heard from my supervisor.

Though I have heard it from other teachers.

I’m not talking about tough love. I’m not talking about love: school is a job, and everyone involved has to do their part, and should be expected to do their part. When teachers are willing to provide whatever a student needs, then they students – and their parents – quickly realize that the more they need, the more they get. I think this has much to do with the rise in special education students – students with, as we say, special needs. That is not in any way to say that students who have genuine needs should be neglected or denied what support they need; in order to do your job, you have to be in a situation where it’s possible for you to do your job, and that is the goal of special education, and in my experience it usually works very well. But there are also lots and lots of students who lay claim to needs they don’t actually need. And teachers provide for them, too, because – well, because we love all of our students like they were our own children.

They’re not our kids. They’re also not our clients – another popular, and pernicious, paradigm for schools (Pernicious because the customer is always right, which again puts too much power into the hands of students who are willing to be demanding, and taking all power away from teachers who are willing to be giving.). Students are actually our coworkers. We teachers have a job to do, and students have a job to do; we need them to do their job, and they need us to do ours.

It’s a lot easier to do that when you kind of don’t like them that much. It’s a natural instinct to want to help your friends, and people you like, especially when they seem desperate – and desperation is a state that teenagers excel at. It’s an even stronger instinct to want to protect and help your children. So when we think of students as children, as our children, and we think of ourselves as their protectors and guardians, then we do things for them that we wouldn’t do for strangers – or for our coworkers. Things that they, therefore, don’t learn to do for themselves.

Sometimes they really do need the help, and when they do, we should provide it. Any decent person should do the same, and as a teacher, we do get to know more of the intimate and therefore terrible details of our students’ lives. That does put us in a unique position to provide help to people who really need it, and we should; and the times when I have, I am proud to have done so.

But most of them don’t need my help. They don’t need my care, they don’t need my love. They need to learn how to write an essay. They need me to teach them. If I hate them a little, I can teach them a lot.

It is also true that the students aren’t the only ones who make constant, unreasonable demands of teachers: the school administration does the same. In my almost two decades of teaching, I have seen more evidence every year that the only thing that keeps the education system working at all is the willing self-sacrifice of teachers. If we didn’t give up our free time, our evenings and our weekends, the work wouldn’t get done. If we didn’t bust our asses, and too frequently shell out our own money, then kids wouldn’t be able to do all the fun things they get to do in schools that keep them entertained, and therefore earn whatever commitment they have to the whole endeavor. (One small example is my current school’s robotics team, which engages a fair percentage of our best and brightest – and which is made possible only by teachers giving up their time and energy and money. Without that team, the school would lose dozens of students, current and potential. Multiply that by every school and almost every fun extracurricular: how often are the popular clubs run by the principal? That’s right. Never.) If we weren’t willing to take on this incredibly difficult and frustrating task for insufficient money, then schools would shut down. All of them. Pretty much at once. Realize that I make probably half of what I deserve, as a good and capable teacher: and realize, too, that my class sizes are already too big. So if we were paid what we should be, there would be twice as many students per teacher – and now the money doesn’t matter, and my capacity for teaching doesn’t matter, because the job simply becomes impossible: and I quit and move to a Caribbean island to sell fish tacos and smarmy haikus. And then there’s no more schools. And then what becomes of the lil angels?

But of course, the orthodox catechism of teachers tells us that we love them, and therefore must sacrifice for them. Administrators know this: and so they ask us for anything they might want of us, with one simple, inevitable, never-fail justification: it’s for the students. And every time they say that, there are teachers who are willing to do it. Always. Spend eight hours after school tutoring students for test prep? Well, they really need the help, we say. Spend a weekend baking for a fundraiser – using materials bought with our own money? Well, some of the kids just can’t afford the trip on their own. Take up campus supervision because the administration cut the security guard to save on the budget? Well, the kids need to feel safe! I know I’m unqualified to be a security guard, and already terribly overworked doing my actual job; but – it’s for the children.

I wish that more teachers felt what I feel. I do think most of them do, and they cover it up; because they don’t want to get the strange looks, and they don’t want to let the children down. Here’s the secret, though: most of my students really do like me, and like my class, even though I am entirely open with them about all of this. I tell my students, as I tell my fellow teachers, that I do this for the money: I tell my students that if I win the lottery tonight, I will not be in class tomorrow. I tell them that they are not my friends, and that I don’t want to be their parent. I tell them that if they fail the class, that is their responsibility; I’ll give them the opportunity to learn, but I will not force them, will not chase them down and hold their hand and twist their ear and drag them, kicking and screaming, into a bright future. I tell them that if they don’t want to be there, they can leave, and I won’t stop them. And they like my class. Because I’m honest. And because I offer them what they actually want, and what they actually need: the chance to be themselves, and to do it alone.

Because I’m not going to do it for them.

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