Thursday, January 11, 2007

Why can't all students have respect?

Recently, I was asked to participate in a review of the English language arts program in a Boston-area school district. What made this particularly interesting was the fact that the school district was Weston, Massachusetts which Wikipedia lists as one of America’s “100 richest places.” I’ve never been particularly comfortable with the rich so I was a bit uneasy about spending two days in what I imagined would be schools overpopulated by rich, over privileged, white kids.

What I saw in the Weston Schools generally confirmed my expectations. I observed smart, articulate teachers and bright, talented (and overwhelmingly white) students working in wonderful facilities. But it wasn’t the beautiful physical spaces and rich teaching resources that impressed me most during my two days in the Weston Public Schools. What really struck me was the level of respect teachers had for their students. When Weston students talked, teachers listened, even if the talk was somewhat off-task. Teachers engaged their students in thoughtful discussions and challenging work. There weren’t a lot of silly rules here, either. If a student wanted to go to the bathroom or get a drink, for example, they merely signed out.

I once heard a sermon by a Unitarian minister in which he argued that “respect begets respect.” This is how it was in Weston. Weston’s school administrators treated teachers as thoughtful professionals who they expected would draw on their expertise and experience to plan lessons and work with students. Teachers, in turn, treated their students as the bright, interesting people they are. The students – at least in my presence – treated the teachers and each other with similar respect. And, of course, the beautiful facilities evidenced the respect the Weston community has for its children and their teachers.

The beautiful, well-cared-for facilities, well-equipped classrooms, and small class sizes in Weston contrast sharply with the dreary, under-resourced urban schools I often visit. And, if “respect” is a dominant motif in rich, suburban schools like Weston, “disrespect” frequently dominates the experience of students and teachers in many urban schools. Tedious, scripted curricula, rigid behavioral policies, poorly maintained facilities and under-resourced classrooms found in many urban schools suggest a fundamental lack of respect for students and teachers working in these schools.

My experience in Weston is a dramatic illustration of the “savage inequalities” that Jonathon Kozol has documented. But I don’t begrudge the Weston students and staff their wonderful facilities, extensive learning resources, and humane working conditions. They deserve them. I just wish students in Boston, Cleveland, New York, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles had the same advantages. The students and teachers in these communities deserve them, too.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, Weston is a great place to live because of its top-notch educational system.