The Problem of Authority

The Beastie Boys famously sang “you have to fight for your right to party” which succinctly expresses a common theme in youth culture, namely freedom comes through resisting traditional authority (teacher, police officer, politician etc). A classic from the band Twister Sister intones :

“We’ll fight the powers that be just
Don’t pick our destiny ’cause
You don’t know us, you don’t belong

Oh we’re not gonna take it
No, we ain’t gonna take it
Oh we’re not gonna take it anymore”

In the current culture wars, we see the constant battering of traditional views through the hegemony of popular culture which acts as a symbol carrying system that teens ascribe to as a means to individuate and develop identity. The flip side of this is the denigrating or use of traditional symbols such as believing in God or reading the bible as a source of absurdity or a loss of freedom. Teens overwhelmingly influenced by popular culture are in a double bind situation, and it is often at-risk teens who are most susceptible to pop culture’s cartoon view of freedom.

In contrast, the opposing sphere of tradition emphasizes values that place hard work, responsibility and rules and structure as a pathway to adult life. Rules are put in place to scaffold the internal development of maturity, while independence and freedom are limited based on appropriate maturity. Today, teens are growing up within a virtualized culture and one that finds even many adults struggling with “adulting” and unable to express appropriate adult authority. Ironically, these traditional values are a necessary part of the structure that guides development and leads to increasing freedom.

To grow up teenagers must parse the the symbolic identities offered by pop culture for the real identities of adulthood. Failure to do so increases the risk of prolonging immaturity leading to oversight and monitoring by mature adults, or, so often, the system. A local social worker told me that the number one person signing up for benefits in Winnipeg is not the down and out street person, but the 18 year old male living in their parent’s basement, usually brought down to the appointment by his mother.

Growing up is synonymous with the ability to maintain one’s life independently of his or her parents or caregivers. Today, access to constructed identities through popular music culture continues to present the ideal of freedom through rebellion and rejecting of any tradional authority or rules. Instead of presenting a pathway to freedom, this simply stalls or slows adolescent maturity. Freedom only comes with the corresponding path of development that leads to self control and mastery of adult roles and responsibility. A path which requires the assistance of adults further along the road.

The Rule

One of the most common classroom problems is managing late students. At the start of every semester I always give the standard speech, “students who are on time and in class do better than students who are late or absent.” I tell them that the students who fail my classes are always in this category. Everyone solemnly agrees they will be on time, yet within a week the pattern will start. Students fall into one of three categories. 1. Those who show up on time because of the act of monitoring them, 2. those who actively resist being on time, and 3. those who choose to be on time because they have internalized the rule.

Group one practices conformity to the rule just to avoid a consequence, or in the words of one student “so that mum does not freak out.” However, if I stopped monitoring or their parents went soft on privileges such as video games and cell phone use then they would be influenced to show up late more often. External motivation is needed because they have not yet internalized the rule and their has been no real heart change.

A lot of students practice conformity to the rule just to avoid a consequence, or in the words of one student “so that mum does not freak out.”

Group two students are those who are engaged in resisting the rule. This might be anything from skimming five minutes off the start of each class to much longer periods of time. Students who habitually resist the rule are often those individuals who are struggling in both academic and home life. I always weigh the difficulties they are facing as I try to use monitoring, consequences, and reminders to improve their hit rate. When I sense they are at least trying to make an effort, I am more likely to overlook their less than perfect success. What matters is the direction they are going rather than a perfect score.

Students who habitually resist the rule are often those individuals who are struggling in academic and home life. I always weigh the difficulties they are facing as I try to use monitoring, consequences and reminders to improve their hit rate.

For habitually late students, I usually start with light consequences such as the awkward talk in the hallway, followed by the call home. Let’s be honest immediate improvement is usually only short lived and at risk students have heard the basic teacher script so many times that it is background noise. I like to experiment with off-script ideas to see if I can get a different result. One strategy involved a series of questionnaires asking students to list five reasons life would be better off if they were on time. The next day, I might change the questions to five reasons they would tell their future self to be on time, or some other variation. A memorable student received four versions of this half baked strategy before he finally decided to show up on time (at least for a couple of days) because he couldn’t take any more questionnaires.

Let’s be honest immediate improvement is usually only short lived and at risk students have heard the basic teacher script so many times that its background noise.

Group three are those who are in agreement with the rule, or are at least on automatic pilot when the bell rings. Quite remarkably, a large number of such students exist and show up everyday on time. They have taken the external monitoring and accepted its intent and they will quietly show up for attendance even when it’s not absolutely clear it’s necessary, such as at the end of a public assembly when most people wander off for a few free extra un-monitored minutes. Such students have absorbed a lesson that will pay dividends in all areas of their life.

A police office jumped out of an unmarked car and flagged me down almost causing an accident in the process. My initial adrenaline fuelled reaction was to fight the ticket in protest…

A few years ago I received a ticket for continuing to drive straight where I was supposed to turn left. A police office jumped out of an unmarked car and flagged me down almost causing an accident in the process. My initial adrenaline fuelled reaction was to contest the ticket in protest, but after some thought I decided to absorb the consequence and just pay the fine for the simple reason that I was wrong. By learning from the consequence I was agreeing that the intent of the rule was good. My decision was based on what I was learning from my students. In the classroom, I try to impose basic structure and rules, such as being on time, yet everyday students do their best to wiggle out of the expectations. My goal is to move students from conformity to internalizing that the rule is essentially good. What they don’t always realize is that they need this skill to do well in life, both in my classroom, and future forms of employment and other social activities. Managing our own behaviour and growing in self control leads to greater maturity while immaturity always leads to being managed by others. The Rule comes first, but the goal is maturity and self control.

The Real World or the Adult World?

Today’s social media culture constantly blurs the line between the real and the constructed which encompasses everything from the absurd to the idealized. With every student carrying an phone in their pocket, not to mention (in my position) teaching in a computer lab, there is a never ending cornucopia of connected sources such as online games or fail videos of people falling off the back of chairs and other stupid stunts. A recent favourite that gained traction features a Youtube video of some dude burping after speedily drinking a 2 litre bottle of Coke. Emulation follows and I soon have three grade 10 students burping and entertaining their friends.

Let’s face it most classrooms are slow moving, repetitious in their nature, and decidedly analogue or literally unplugged. Social media is fast moving, discontinuous, novel, absurd, and identity driven and always provides a means of escape from the moment. As teachers we must recognize that we are swimming upstream against the influence of various forms of social media which are only going to increase. For example, just around the corner are so called deep fakes which will use AI and readily available images to create fabricated videos of individuals doing and saying things that never happed. Previously I used to tell students, “I’m preparing you for the real world where you have to show up for work on time or get fired.” I would mention the horrors of repetitious jobs that don’t allow you to have access to your cell phone 24 hours a day and other expectations like being polite and taking breaks at the assigned time.

To avoid reinforcing the message that some students hold, namely that high school is not the real world, I have switched to emphasizing preparing for the adult world . Most students want the perceived freedom and respect of being an adult. When pressed they will say, “when I have a job I’ll show up on time, I’ll take it seriously.” My answer is practice now. Everyday the classroom is an opportunity to practice adult skills. I remind them that adults think and behave in certain ways that are beneficial to them. Successful adults work hard and show other adults in their work environment respect. I remind them that if they plan on escaping the life of a teenager then they need to develop adult skills. This is why showing up on time on a regular basis, and staying on task are important indicators of the current progress towards adulthood of a student.

As teachers we often push against a culture that is steeped in spectacle and novelty. When we reinforce the classroom stereotype of preparing for the real world, we risk diminishing the students current experience and progress towards becoming adults.


Classroom FAQ

Everyday in the classroom I answer the same common questions over and over. Some of the top choices include:

1. What do I do when I’m done?
2. Is this good enough?
3. Can I get a drink of water?
4. When will I ever need this?
5. Is this for marks?
6. What did I miss?

Here is my brief interpretation:

What do I do when I’m done? can often mean, “is it ok to do nothing?” 

Is this good enough? often this means have I done enough work or I can I stop working now.

Can I get a drink of water, go to my locker, bathroom etc?, often just means I need a break from what we are currently doing.

When will I ever need this? just means  this work is completely irrelevant to my life

Is this for marks? of course means, do i really need to do this?

What did I miss? is often a polite way of asking do I actually have to make up work?

All six questions connect with the underlying theme of work and work ethic which is an ever present reality in the classroom. One of the key tasks of moving from adolescence to adulthood is developing and taking responsibility for work. As a teacher, part of my role is helping students develop and practice their own work ethic. Let’s face it: this task is not glamorous and is a bit like teaching someone to choose broccoli over potato chips. Why would anyone make such a choice? Surely not for mere marks. No, we make hard choices to get a better outcome later.

Some students are planning on being rock stars and Instagram celebrities of one form or another. While I would certainly encourage students to follow their bliss, unfortunately I’m also in the business of teaching the general necessity of getting stuff done. This is a general life learning skill that has to be practiced to grow. Learning this lesson is foundational to many other lessons, which is why I’m going to need that assignment by the end of the day.