Friday, January 30, 2009

Newer Self-Esteem Issues in Schools

(News-Herald, January 29) I recently read yet another columnist complaining about the self-esteem movement in public education.
On the one hand, I agree completely with the arguments that lay a host of ills at the altar of self-esteem worship. On the other hand, complaining about the self-esteem movement in schools is like complaining about disco music on the radio. It’s not that criticism isn’t well-grounded—it just doesn’t have anything to do with what’s going on today.
There’s no question that the cult of self-esteem was seriously misguided. It’s not that self-esteem is worthless—people usually make sure that they get what they think they deserve in life, and when they think they don’t deserve much, they can make a mess out of themselves. But studies have also shown that lots of street criminals have extra-super self-esteem. Large egos are not always good.
It has been years since I’ve heard any teacher seriously suggest that a student should receive special kid-glove treatment or manufactured success in order to preserve that student’s self-esteem.
True, education is still haunted by fake success and systems that are jiggered in order to make sure that little Johnny has only happy moments. But this no longer has anything to do with Little Johnny’s self-esteem. The average school is not worried that Little Johnny will feel bad—they worried that Little Johnny’s parents will feel bad. So bad that they’ll call their lawyer.
Years ago we heard about schools where there was no valedictorian because the administration didn’t want the also-rans to take a hard blow to their fragile self-esteems. Nowadays schools can expect phone calls from the also-rans’ moms and dads, threats of lawyers to follow.
Cut a student from the team? Expect a call. Send a student to the office for cheating? Expect a call.
A student in California was suspended from all school activities after he was convicted of fraud in federal court. He sued the school for cutting him from the ball team, claiming he had a future in pro sports.
In Florida, an 18-year old student mooned his teacher at a school event. The school gave him a suspension; his parents are suing the school.
In Connecticut, a student is suing a teacher who woke him up by making a loud noise in class. And there are more lawsuits than I can count filed by students and their parents against teachers who gave them failing grades for plagiarizing or not completing assignments.
One of my favorites—a student was caught hiring a hit man to kill his teacher. The school district expelled him. He sued the district.
Now, I’m a fan of accountability. As a teacher, I assume I ought to be able to justify anything I’m doing in my classroom.
I’m also a fan of parents sticking up for their children. Parents should advocate for their children. After all—if your own parents aren’t in your corner, who will be?
However. Advocating for your children sometimes means making sure that they learn some lessons for life. A basic lesson is that actions have consequences, that you can be forgiven for messing up, but you still have to suffer the outcome of the mess-up. Ten years from now, you don’t really want to be saying to your kid, “Look, stealing that car wasn’t really your fault. The police are just picking on you, and if you’re convicted, we’ll just sue them.”
School districts, for their part in a perfect world, should both make sure their actions are justified, and then steel their backbones. Too many schools suffer from a sort of pre-emptive paralysis, a search not for the right action, but the action least likely to provoke an angry parental phone call. A handful of belligerent parents make schools fearful of all the other good ones.
We have an advantage in small districts—we know which parents assume Johnny’s eternal innocence and who keep the lawyer on speed dial. If Little Johnny sets a classmate on fire, we know that giving Little Johnny a detention will just be picking on him. The down side of that is we will sometimes bend rules to avoid Dadzilla; some day we’ll get sued over that, too.
Venangoland is filled with good, decent, responsible, rational, loving parents, who must sometimes wonder what keeps us from taking some seemingly obvious steps. But I can assure you—we stopped worrying about the self-esteem of students years ago. Nowadays, it’s parental self-esteem we have to worry about.

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