Sunday, July 25, 2010

"The Principal's Office" misuses students

Some teachers on Twitter kept referring to SM. I googled "SM education." For the rest of my life, and for years beyond, there will be a record suggesting that I searched for sado-masochistic literature. My digital footprint is forever stained.

Such are the dangers of the internet.

(For the record, it was shorthand for social media.)

I've been playing with computers for a long time. I doodled with a Timex Sinclair almost 30 years ago, before many of the more excitable edu-bloggers were even zygotes.

My first experience with the internet was 300 bps.
I taught an elective computer class in the early 90's.
I have a clue about the power of searchable databases.

What I don't have a clue about is how to approach the pedagogical lovefest brewing on the horizon.

I've done some godawful dumb things in my life. I've been forgiven for most of them. Nobody but people I love know, and they have chosen to forget.

The internet does not allow amnesia.

I stumbled across "The Principal's Office" today, a reality series that focuses on principals disciplining kids. One particularly icky episode has an older man paddling a young woman behind closed doors.

The internet does not allow refuge.

One of the principals featured is someone reasonably local. I've read his blog, his tweets, watched a few of his videos. He's young--he was 7 years old when I was playing with the Sinclair. "The Principal's Office" bio states that he uses "a combination of humor and toughness to break kids down."

Power is part of any principal's toolbox, and I'm in no position to judge what goes on in this principal's office. Putting it on the internet, however, increases the power and harms the student.

The principal plays the young man like a fish, indeed jokes in an aside about his avoidance of the cafeteria food:
Jordan, today's Cheesesteak Day. I love cheesesteaks!

The principal plays the irrational fear card:
Are you supposed to accept packages from strangers?

Facial recognition programs will soon make it possible for employers to find you without your name. Jordan's potential employers may well see this 10 years from now.

Jordan is a high school student. High school students often do stupid things. I did a lot of stupid things in high school. I'm not even sure that what Jordan did was even stupid. But I know it's immortal.

This principal's actions pale compared to the abuse of Mr. Halter, a principal in Arizona, who paddles a young woman behind closed doors, then offers her a "sympathetic touch" on her shoulder after administering the punishment. It borders on pornography.


Ira Socol has written a brilliant piece: "Lord of the Flies: How Adults Create Bullying." Go read it, I'll wait. If you have time, follow his links and the comments.

If you don't have time, read this much:
Children do learn, after all. And mostly, they learn by watching us.

"The Principal's Office" reflects all too well what's happening in our schools. It's edited, of course, and I realize the goal is more to sell a program than share the truth.

I asked the first principal today if he had any regrets.
No regrets, but I was not always accurately portrayed.

He made $10,000 for his school. He got to go on Rachel Rae. He's an up and coming star in the new edu-media universe.

I'm sure everything was legal and aboveboard, but I've got this quaint idea of loco parentis--we are obligated to act in the best interests of the children we coerce to sit in our buildings for hours at a time.

I'd be interested in what you think.

The image is from truTV here.

One of the principals involved assures me that these were re-enactments, with proper permission.
I have asked for clarification if these were the actual students.


Charlie Roy said...

Interesting post. As a high school principal I don't have to deal with discipline directly. My assistant principals handle 95% of it but I am involved in the more serious offenses. I'm always a fan of humor to help diffuse a situation.

We've dealt with this same issue. For a student who really didn't know it was against the rules we just hold the food till after school and let them take it home afterwords. Occasionally we are kind enough to allow them to eat the food in a room off the office somehow this seems to work out.

We have the no outside food rule largely due to the fact that our lunch window is 24 minutes and the odds of the delivery being on time are slim. Add to that allowing students to order food makes it hard for the cafeteria to plan. Some schools have open lunch campuses so it isn't an issue.

On the odd chance someone makes a fake order (this happens once to twice a year). The last time some one ordered a pizza for "Mr. Jack Ass". Don't ask my why the staff didn't clarify the last name. Perhaps pronounced quickly it sounds Greek. Apparently when it arrived the secretary presumed it was for me. We payed for it out of petty cash, called the manager and asked them to confirm any orders to the school before they come, and then used some observational tactics to figure out who had done it. That took about ten minutes. The student reimbursed us the money and the next day the two of us went to the pizza establishment for lunch. He apologized to the delivery driver and staff privately in the back room and then we ordered lunch. I suppose I was too kind in allowing us both to eat off campus but I'd already driven 15 minutes at lunch time and was hungry.

All in all using reasonable consequences I hope teaches more of a lesson. I'm sure the young man who went with me will remember that day for ever. He was not belittled, embarassed, or demeaned and somehow it worked well.

doyle said...

Dear Charlie,

Great story!

To be clear, I do not object to the consequences in most of the episodes (though the Arizona video went over the edge). My question is whether publicly displaying the process in a medium that has no expiration date is an abuse of authority.

He was not belittled, embarrassed, or demeaned and somehow it worked well. If you had filmed it, would he have been embarrassed?

John Spencer said...

I love the way that Rachel Ray and the principals mock the student excuses.

I've learned two things about excuses:

1. Most of them are true, or at least have an element of truth to them. When a girl says, "I can't sit in school for seven hours," she's probably right. School is boring. Most adults can't do it.Listen to students and help find a fucking solution instead of fighting them!

2. The bad excuses are masks of something bigger. When a kid is lying to you, it's because he can't trust you. When you pick fights, tell people's stories without permission and do it all on camera, kids are forced to lie to you.

John Spencer said...

Scare tactics, banning cell phones, insane rules. Jordan strikes me as reasonable and creative and the principal comes across as a douche. Might not be reality. I'm sure it's all edited.

doyle said...

Dear John,

How the principal comes across, I leave up to the viewer. I've got no particular bone to pick with him; quite frankly, I was shocked to see that he had participated.
I do not want the principal to become the focus, but rather the practice of using students on television the way he did.

Interesting point about the lying. I try to look behind the excuses, and sometimes it's just that--an excuse--and other times it's something much larger than anything I've ever had to carry.

The principal involved in the 1st video has since told me that these are re-enactments. I do not know if they involve the actual students or not, but apparently the stories are told with permission.

I'll let you know more as I hear.

Jenny said...

I'm disturbed by this. Kids are willing to put things on tv or the internet that could be a bad idea. Why would we encourage that behavior?

It seems to be the money is a significant factor. So many schools are hurting financially right now that it's not hard to imagine schools deciding to do this for the cash.

doyle said...

Dear Jenny,

I'm disturbed, too, more so because the principal does not seem to grasp the problem.

I hope he chooses to engage further--it's an important topic, particularly for those who wield power as he does.

Bill Genereux said...

My first year as a non-traditional college student, I declared secondary education as my major, thinking I would like to teach. That year, I took an intro to education course with a practicum that allowed me to visit several high school classrooms during the semester. That experience was directly responsible for my changing majors.

The adults were often so belittling to the students, several acting as if they didn't even like or care about the kids. In your video, the principal's demeanor took me right back to that experience and I cringed. I decided not to teach high school, not because I didn't think I would enjoy teaching, but because I was pretty sure I wouldn't enjoy my colleagues.

As far as the school being depicted in video on the internet, it is a fact of life that isn't going away. I first discovered "The Principal" and the spanking episode while researching YouTube in the Classroom. Every day, students are recording and publishing the goings-on in their schools. These days, if an educator gets too abusive, he or she is sooner or later likely to become a viral video star. Media savvy schools and educators are producing their own video pieces as well.

Personally, I prefer to see the students and their teachers portrayed in a positive light, but that is often not the case.

It is a part of new media literacy, to understand how editing works and that we rarely see anything in context. If we didn't understand this before, last week's USDA scandal should teach us that.

doyle said...

Dear Bill,

I see the same things in the video, but judging by the comments on the TruTv website, a lot of people don't. It's sad that so many people just expect it now.

I need to introduce the concept of how editing changes perception into science class--it's a huge industry out there, manipulating the truth.

Truth loses. We all lose.

Thanks for your thoughtful words.