When I opened an email from Fox New's Jesse Watters I was wary. Bill O'Reilly's sidekick (not sure what else to call him) said that my book (Students First and Other Lies) had come up on a search about high school violence and that he wanted to interview me about school violence and student behavior problems.
I warned Watters that if he and O'Reilly intended to advance the tired thesis that kids are running amok in our schools I was the wrong person to interview. If they wished to attack those who are promoting restorative justice -- an attempt to stop criminalizing student misbehavior -- that I would be their adversary.
It is true that many such efforts to implement these no-suspension policies have been done foolishly, failing to provide teachers viable alternatives and leaving them at the mercy of troubled students. And I would say that if asked. But I would also say that I fundamentally supported the goal and that I have, in my 25 years, never relied on anyone outside my classroom to discipline my students. I would also say that student misbehavior is often a symptom of a crisis in that student's life and that some schools and classroom environments and stressed teachers -- often overwhelmed and underprepared -- provoke bad behavior.
I have seen it. I have worked with such teachers to help them find their way. We must, of course, protect well-behaved students from disruption and harm. And we must protect all students from mis-education. No teacher should fear for his or her safety. But bad behavior is often an opportunity to do our most meaningful teaching. Sometimes it's up to us to save kids from themselves.
I warned Watters that I would say these things and he said that was great. He had no preconceived notions. He just wanted viewers to get some insight into what is going on in our schools around the country.
My wife warned me -- don't believe them, she said. She told me I was being used.
I said that I understood the risks of going on camera for Fox News but that I felt sure I could stand up to whatever they threw at me. I wasn't going to duck from the right-wing propaganda machine. I would stand up for my students and other inner-city students, boys especially, who need to be disciplined and enlightened without being criminalized.
So I went to their L.A. studio for a taped interview with Jesse Watters. The interview lasted about 15 minutes and covered a range of issues, including the conditions of schools, the importance of trust of concern between teacher and students, the importance of stability -- teacher and administrative longevity (I now teach the children of former students and that goes a long way toward building trust and mutual respect in the classroom) -- and an understanding of the challenges that many of our students face. The toughest, rudest, most combative students will, very often, use an entire box of Kleenex talking about their lives.
Teacher safety should be a given. So should student safety. But we ought not try to achieve it by triage. There may be students who are truly dangerous -- who need to be separated from other students -- but in 25 years I have never known one.
If Jesse Watters was disappointed by my answers -- and in retrospect I have to believe he was -- then he did not let on. He asked me if I thought things were getting worse and I said that I did not think so. I said that sometimes the parents of my students suggest they are (getting worse) and sometimes those parents are my former students and I'm amused at their amnesia about what they were like in school. I said that teenagers have been misbehaving for a very long time. Since the Ancient Greeks -- and probably before that. I said that there was a Socrates quote about it. I didn't remember it but, for the record, here it is:
The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.
Almost nothing I said did make it into the five minute segment that aired a few nights later:
As you'll see -- if you care to watch it -- the segment was dominated by two other teachers who support the narrative that students are bad. I empathize with those colleagues and their struggles but there is no mention about administrative support -- or the lack thereof. It's all blamed on the students. At least that is the implication. Meanwhile, the bald guy (me) says three things. Yes, I've had fights in my classroom. I've broken up fights. I got bruised up a few times doing it. What didn't get aired is that on many occasions I have dealt with these altercations without the administration. I have quashed hostilities among the students and kept young men from being kicked out -- and most of those young men stayed in school and succeeded. I still hear from some of them. They have jobs, families.
Yes, I was once shot at on an outdoor basketball court. No one was hurt but it did scare the shit out of us. It happens. It happens in South L.A. where I teach and it happens elsewhere. The gunman was a former student who had been kicked out a year before and now had a beef with one of the basketball players I was coaching. That incident did get reported to the police. And, yes, I have taken weapons from students. And, to Watters' credit, he did not edit out what I said about them always being defensive weapons -- students carrying protection on the mean streets they've had to traverse to get to and from school.
But my wife was right. I was used. My words became part of the false narrative that inner-city kids are out of control and we need the police in the schools to root out the problem. Probably not a coincidence that all the offending students in the videos they showed were African American. One wonders if the real agenda wasn't some refutation to the assertion that "Black Lives Matter."
By the time O'Reilly furrowed his brow and offered up his assessment, he seemed perfectly reasonable calling for the police to storm our classrooms.
I once had a police officer come into my classroom. He was chasing one of my students who had been in a fight. The student ran into my room because he thought I might hide him -- and maybe I would have -- but it was too late. The officer was right on his heels. The cop grabbed the young man who resisted and within seconds had his baton around the kid's neck. Other students were screaming. I thought the guy was going to die in front of them. I got up in his ear and told him that I cared about him and that other people did too. Somehow he heard me and submitted to being apprehended.
I wonder what kind of student O'Reilly was. Did he never misbehave in school? I'm sure if he ever did it was harmless. No weapons. No violence.
And that is still what most bad behavior consists of -- teenagers trying to stave off the tedium or express themselves amid the anonymity and alienation or just express their opposition to all the adult assholes around them. Or -- and this gets little mention -- distract everyone from their own embarrassment at having been mis-educated.
We've got to help kids! That's what we are there for. If that's not your objective -- if you aren't willing to go to great lengths to help kids -- then I don't believe you ought to be working in a school.
Bill O'Reilly has every right to say that some kids are just bad apples, out of control, and should be carted off by constables.
But educators have got be committed to proving him wrong.
Our students need teachers who understand them and care about them and are willing to tolerate them when they are not at their best.
Needless to say I was upset seeing that segment. Embarrassed -- especially when former students saw it and asked me about it.
I got a chance to set the record straight a little when Fox & Friends asked me on their show a few days later to talk about the same issue. It was to be five minutes live -- no editing -- though, as you'll see, they seemed to be trying to subvert my message with sensationalist video and incongruous subtitles.
I remember when I was a rookie teacher who didn't know what I was doing. I remember when I felt under siege, taken hostage by the angry mob of teenagers I was supposed to help educate. I remember thinking it was hopeless. I remember thinking those children were evidence that our civilization was collapsing.
Now I feel that same kind of doom seeing a so-called news network defame my students and their peers throughout the country and call for the further criminalization of our classrooms.