My reflections on parenting and teaching often overlap, and some of my recent readings, scholarly and non, have got me thinking again about the issue of obedience, but this time my thoughts are with the classroom instead of my "highly spirited" daughter.
I'm not a very authoritarian teacher. I don't have many strict rules for my classroom, and I generally approach my lesson planning with an eye toward collaboration. I do, however, hold students accountable for their own participation in that collaboration. I take attendance every day and have many assignments that can't be made up if they're missed. I expect that my students are going to take the class as seriously as I do, and I design it with that expectation in mind.
As a writing instructor, one of the places where my teaching style gets challenged is in grading papers. I have to evaluate the work that's been given to me, even if that sometimes conflicts with my other views. Writing, unlike many other subjects, can appear very subjective (and, in truth, often is very subjective) to students. I do my best to make clear grading rubrics and to explain the grade thoroughly and clearly.
Still, sometimes students want to challenge me on the grade they've received. Sometimes students will insist that they explained something well enough when I don't think they did. Sometimes students will insist that they shouldn't be graded on a grammar rule that we hadn't specifically addressed in class. Sometimes students will simply say that they worked too hard to get a C, or D, or F.
I was thinking about this lately when I saw an old clip from Fox News discussing how Mr. Rogers had destroyed America by giving us a generation of entitled children with undeservedly inflated self-esteem.
One of the examples they give to demonstrate how entitled this generation has come to be is students who argue with teachers over their grades.
In a book I'm reading for my PhD exams (Thomas P. Miller's The Formation of College English), there's a line about the link between education and passive acceptance:
It is a commonplace that ears attuned to the school bell are more likely to obey the factory whistle because children who have been taught to accept a routine of unfulfilling labor with promises of self-improvement will grow up to accept assembly lines and savings plans.
Perhaps it is a belief like this one (that an educational institution makes one "more likely to obey") that left so many people shocked when this video of a student calling his teacher out for poor teaching skills made the rounds last year:
In social media conversations about this video, I found myself at odds with many (though definitely not all) of my teacher friends. I side with the student. He doesn't cuss the teacher out. He delivers his points in an organized, passionate way, and he leaves without resorting to violence or destruction. If I were the teacher, sure, I'd be upset, but learning requires a feedback loop, and if this was the only way for this student to effectively voice the necessary feedback, then he was acting rhetorically by figuring that out and seizing that moment.
I feel the same way about students who question the grades I give them on papers.
Sure, in the moment, it can be frustrating. After all, there are tons and tons of comments written into the rubric. I've outlined why they've received that grade. Why should I now have to argue about it?
But I have to argue about it because that's my job. When a student brings me a paper and respectfully asks me to reconsider the grade, that student is learning valuable skills. That student is learning self-advocacy and self-awareness. That student is entering into a real-life rhetorical situation in which s/he has an actual stake.
I very, very rarely change a grade (though I do allow revisions), but I also very rarely have a student who leaves a grade complaint meeting without reaching some sort of understanding.
Was that student "entitled" by seeking out a better grade? And if so, is entitlement necessarily a bad thing as long as it doesn't run unchecked? If we have more "entitled" students, doesn't that just challenge us to articulate and disseminate our own standards more clearly? Isn't that a good thing?
Sure, it would be more convenient for my students to quietly take every grade I give them without complaint. It would also be more convenient for my daughter to lay down and take a nap without throwing a fit.
But at the end of the day, I want my students and my daughter to be prepared to face the challenges of the world around them. They're entitled to that.