Friday, November 28, 2014

High Flying Congress



"The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."--Mitch McConnell, October, 2010

If you've read my posts about teaching in the Reynolds School District, you've probably come across the term "high flyer." That's teacher talk for a student who is an exceptional child in ways that no parent wants his or child to be exceptional. The child may very well be bright, even gifted academically, and may not have any of the disabilities one normally associates with being on an Individualized Education Plan, but still is on the radar of every administrator and behavioral specialist of the school for one reason alone: he or she makes it hard for the rest of the class to learn.

High flyers are obstructionists. They interrupt the teacher without being called on, talk with neighbors while the teacher is lecturing, distract everyone around them. When they do raise their hands, it is to ask to use the bathroom, get a drink, go back to their desks for something they forgot. Told "No, class will be over in five minutes, wait until then," they become more persistent in asking for that extra privilege. Separated from whichever classmates they can't sit next too, they will have arguments across the room with them. Interrupt class to have a meeting about how to have more fun and learn more cool things, and every other child will have constructive ideas that, absent the high flyer, will make the next class wonderful; the high flyer will behave just as badly. Going to talk to the counselor or the principal is no help. Put on a behavior plan, the high flyer will decide that the cracker jack rewards for good behavior are just not as fulfilling as having an entire group of people enmeshed in his or her personal drama.

A week ago I had a class of fifth graders in the music room for a recorder class. Most classes with this particular group are extremely frustrating, as there are two high flyers who tend to dominate the class, much to the frustration of the other twenty students. Last Friday was different: one of the high flyers were absent. With him gone, the other high flyer was the best behaved I've seen her in the two years I've been teaching at this school. The class got more done in that one half hour than in the previous three weeks.

I love my students, and I have great empathy for the drama in the high flyers' home lives that makes their school behavior so challenging. Even so, I have to admit my job would be much more fun if this handful of students stayed home more often. And that brings me to Congress.

Earlier this morning, as I was writing my Thanksgiving post, I had an insight into the personality of the modern Republican Party, especially as it is manifested in Congress: they are a party of high flyers.

In this metaphor, Barack Obama is the teacher, and the electorate is the school administration (the office, the principal, the counselor)--though it also has to serve a dual function as the students. In this model, Teacher Obama has many cool and wonderful things to explore, and most of the class is eager to learn. We're very interested in universal health care, immigration reform, economic stimulus, minimizing American military intervention in the world, reversing climate change, investing in green technology, and above all else, creating an atmosphere of cooperation not just in Washington, but throughout our nation. We want to learn these things, and we know the President could teach them to us, if only given the chance.

Unfortunately, there is a disproportionately noisy minority in the classroom who don't care about learning. They want class to be all about them. They don't like admitting the teacher is really in charge. They don't know exactly what they'd do if they were, themselves, in charge; in fact, describe the ideals of the teacher to them without mentioning his name, and they'd probably go for most of them. As soon as they hear that these things come from him, though, they reject them loudly, rudely, and effectively.

They never let up, either. They refuse to make any concessions. They will not accept that there will be time to visit the bathroom after class, and will not stop asking to go until the teacher gives in. Once he does, they seize on that fact and are even more persistent in their next dilatory demand. Asked politely to step aside for a moment and just let the poor man have a chance to speak and they shout down that request.

The teacher would love to send the high flyers to the office. Unfortunately, the office is only open for one day every other year, and even then, the teacher is at the mercy of whoever happens to show up. In a leap year, the office is far more likely to be occupied by administrators sympathetic to the majority of students who want to learn. In other years, though, the administrators are themselves high flyers, and not only send the problem students back to the classroom undisciplined, but add to their numbers.

What is the teacher to do? He could hold class meetings, trying to get a dialogue going about how to have more productive classes, but the people most needing to participate in those meetings would always have the same response: "Give us what we want and we'll behave." 

In essence, the high flyers will just go on holding the class hostage until they get what they want. Since giving them what they want means going back on all his ideals, the teacher has to go on saying no. It's an impasse. Denied the right of expelling the high flyers from class, the teacher has no options left: he turns class over to the high flyers, retreats to the teacher's lounge and, to mix metaphors, puts the inmates in charge of the asylum.

Except he's more responsible than that. He came here to teach, and by God, he's going to do it. It does mean giving up on teaching to the entire student population--but then, the high flyers weren't going to start listening anytime soon, anyway. So now he reaches out to those he knows will hear him, and just ignores the high flyers. His lessons shift from being cooperative learning experiences to being lectures, which is fine for the majority, who just want to hear those words. This infuriates the high flyers, of course, who cannot be happy unless everyone, including the teacher, is giving them full undivided attention.

And to that, and all the hurt feelings being whined about by Mitch McConnell and John Boehner now that President Obama has finally decided to use his executive powers rather than try to work with those who refuse to work with him: go to hell, go directly to hell, do not pass go, and do not collect the votes you need to sustain your tantrum past 2016. The next time you're in the office, the principal is going to give you a lecture that will singe your ear-hair and send you to your corner in tears; and with the rest of the good kids in the class, I will be cheering.

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