Thursday, May 31, 2012

Schools & Rules: What about rebellion?

So, it took me longer to get back to the Schools And Rules series than I'd anticipated, but teaching has a way of eating your life when you aren't looking. :)

Plus I needed to let that pot simmer on the back of the mental stove for a few weeks (months?) to collect my thinking more clearly on the issue of rebellion.

First, a recap:
Schools and Rules -- Intro -- a case in Vermont of a Christian school kid who was suspended partly for questioning his school's dress code rules and other policies got me thinking about how Grace-in-Education might force some differences in the way we educators think about school rules

Authority -- Here, we discussed the idea that obedience to a human authority should not be equated with obedience to God's Law. If we teach kids that their consciences are bound by human legislation as if God Himself were speaking, we're inviting serious trouble once those kids learn to think for themselves about God's ethics and ours.

Channeling the Challenge -- Disagreement isn't just "part of life"; it's healthy. When we refuse to discuss what students want to know -- even if they're being jerks about it -- we telegraph several really negative messages, including "adults don't have answers, they just talk" or "faith is too fragile for tough questions."
If you're new here, I recommend reading those posts above or we run the risk of misunderstanding each other. And in the words of the inestimable Dr Michael P V Barrett, "I hate to be misunderstood."
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Any discussion of rule-keeping must raise the question, What about legitimate rebellion? Isn't that a sin? Or how about disobedience?

It's a hallmark theme in Scripture that we need to obey God's law (go search biblegateway.org for uses of the word "obedience" or "obey" .... go ahead, I'll wait .... huge list! Especially in Deuteronomy and then the historical books of the OT). And lest you think this is just an Old Testament thing (you don't really disparage the OT, do you? please don't do that), the NT has its big share of commands and exhortations to obey.

Disobedience (Scripturally) carries heavy penalties. For the nation Israel when they were in the Land, disobedience cost them everything. Failure to heed divine Law leads us into despair, ruin, and deep sin. Thankfully the Gospel is bigger than our abject failure -- more on that in a minute. But you can soak on verses like Nehemiah 9:17 for a while.

Rebellion is an even deeper sin, scripturally speaking. The province of men like King Saul or Pharaoh or Israel in the wilderness, rebellion is marked by stubbornness, an unwillingness to change, challenging God's authority with a stiff neck and upraised arm. It's a straight shot of disobedience with an arrogance chaser. (The biblical data for both of these words is abundant and easy to find -- run a biblegateway.org search on the terms and read up).

I want to draw a couple distinctions, limiting our discussion to the realm of school (parenting advice is above my pay grade), and suggest some Gracious ways for responding to disobedience and rebellion in the classroom.


DISOBEDIENCE
Rebellion is purposeful, measured, intentional. You might accidentally disobey a rule but you can't rebel against it without some forethought.

On the other hand, a student may disobey out of forgetfulness, inattention, laziness, or ignorance. Punishing students harshly for disobedience probably isn't a good idea until you've gotten some idea of what the situation is. God offers multiple examples of responding in mercy to our faltering attempts to walk in His ways. He didn't get out the big guns until Israel was in full rebellion.
And remember that natural consequences are a powerful teacher.... I don't need to bash my students for not doing their homework. The 13% they got on the reading quiz, along with the ire of their parents, will be corrective enough.

Disobedience when defined as "ignoring or contradicting a rule" isn't even wrong in all circumstances. Let's say there's a rule that says pedestrians should not be crossing an interstate highway. Fair enough. Good law. I hate having to dodge those crrrrazy pedestrians when I'm motoring up I-85. Now let's say I pull over because there's been a horrible accident in the median, and I need to cross 6 lanes of traffic to get to someone who's injured. If the person bleeds out before I get there, I doubt "well, I didn't want to cross the road; I knew the State Highway Patrol enforces that law really tightly, Officer, so I wasn't able to get over to help that guy" will hold up as a legitimate defense.

Coart likes to say "Every good rule will at some point become stupid." Why? Because rules are for stupid, foolish, sinful people. That's why we have them. Rules tend to be written for the lowest common denominator of stupidity. Therefore, you will always find times when rules need to bend or break in order to achieve honest justice in a particular situation. If I don't cross the highway, I'm endangering a life. The rule needs to lose.

(By the way -- the fact that rules tend to be written for LCD of stupidity suggests that maybe we shouldn't make so many new rules and policies based on a particular incident. Exceptional failure to exercise good judgment -- on the part of one student -- doesn't mean the rules are inadequate. It just means that kid was exceptionally foolish and probably needs to be treated as an exception.)
Most of the time, classroom disobedience demands a timely yet gracious response from the teacher. But not anger, insinuations of sinfulness, or condemnation.

And we must always differentiate between "my rules" and God's Law. If a student punches another student in the face, it's God's Law that undergirds the trip to the principal's office. Sure, schools have rules about physical interaction but the point is that punching your classmate in the face seriously violates the injunction to love one another. Unless the punchee was an attacker headed into the classroom to harm the students -- then the puncher is a hero. See? All rules must exist within a deeper biblical framework of ethics and we have to know the particular situation before we can decide whether "disobedience" has occurred.

More realistically: I generally don't appreciate students talking while I'm teaching. So if someone is Chatty Cathy on the back wall, I will usually insist on silence for the sake of the other students. But what if I'm teaching Latin and the talker is actually trying to help her classmate understand how this new grammar about the genitive connects to the previous lesson on the accusative case endings? Yes, there's an issue of "time and place" to discuss -- and younger students especially don't have a good natural sense of what's appropriate and when. But for me to punish the student who's trying to be helpful to a fellow classmate and assist them in learning? Totally inappropriate.

In fact, in most cases, disobedience works itself out especially in older students once calm correction is applied to the situation. If I have to pull a kid into the hallway for a brief talk, that usually ends the problem. My investment in the life of the student carries significant weight, and their role in my classroom community matters as well. We both have a lot of stake in the classroom, so we both (usually) want peace. It can get hairy, yes, but patience and consistency and calmness (rather than labeling a kid as "disobedient") will bear good fruit over the course of the year.
Oh wait -- you wanted a quick and easy route to the harvest of obedience? Sorry.


REBELLION
But what about Rebellion? (It just needs a capital R.)

Good teachers and administrators intervene quickly when they sense rebellion, rather than disobedience, at the heart of a matter. And you can smell it.... really. The intentionality of rebellion, the arrogance -- hard to hide. And it's dangerous to the student himself and to the community of learners (who can catch his disease).

We should always take cues from God in His dealings with His people. God carefully disciplined Israel and her kings toward obedience for their own good. When people insisted, stubbornly, on rebelling against His authority, God brought in the big guns. Grace has a steel backbone.

I've observed a few cases of rebellion during my years at NCS and both of our headmasters were patient, godly men who knew how to love a student enough to sit back and take questions (even when the kid was a jerk) in order to push through to find the core reason for the rebellion.

Occasionally, it didn't work out, and we lost the student. Some kids are so reckless and disobedient that they're dangerous to the rest of the school. Those kids gotta go if they refuse to change. (I guess that would be like Israel's exile?) But most kids start to calm down once they realize adults are actually LISTENING. Once the questions get answered, once the alpha male (principal) lets the kid go a few rounds and get tired of fighting, things calm down.

Thing is, you can't "control" rebellion any more than you can "control" or force a kid to obey. I realize that small children give parents the illusion that the parents can be in control of their kids' behavior....but it really is an illusion. And that illusion shatters as the children become teenagers.
Behavior is always a heart issue, and the only tool that works on a person's heart is self-sacrificial love. (But that's another post.)

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I wish the Vermont school administrators had dealt graciously with the troublesome kid who refused to stop asking questions about school rules.
I get it -- I quickly tired of kids whining about the dress code. BUT we always should be willing to engage in discussion about WHY the rules are what they are, and schools need to be willing to change outmoded rules or ones that aren't working. Some battles aren't worth fighting. NCS slowly tweaked its dress code over about 5 years' time, and I've heard fewer and fewer complaints.
I'd like to wrap up with a shotgun list of applications and one recommended reading:

From Compliant Kids to Ethical Thinkers (John T. Spencer)
What an incredible blog. I don't know this guy but I think we're cut from the same cloth. Read his post -- it's short. Good fodder for today's discussion, and a great example from a public school classroom.
And my applications --
  • Differentiate between disobedience and rebellion. They are not the same thing, and they should not be handled the same way when disciplining.
  • Most disobedience is unintentional and needs to be corrected, not punished. Punishment is punitive; it's damage in return for damage. Correction is helpful and empowers a student to make better choices next time.
  • Rebellion is actually pretty rare in a functional community. It's probably a red flag too -- there's more going on in that student than a sudden desire to impale the rulebook. Dig deeper and you'll start finding upheaval, brokenness, abuse, fear, or anger.
  • Don't confuse human authority with God's Law. Don't punish infractions of human rules as if they were breaking God's laws. That is a dangerous conflation and you will pay for it dearly as soon as a kid learns to think for herself.
  • Natural consequencesof one's actions will always teach more powerful lessons than anything we can construct as a "punishment." Stop sheltering kids from the natural consequences of their actions. It's God's built-in correctional facility for this planet and it works pretty darn well when we let it. That doesn't mean you throw a kid to the wolves or let him hurt himself, but it does mean that we all need to experience the reality that we create because of our choices. And that's a far more powerful tool for sanctification than demerit slips, long lectures, or detention.

To wrap up this series, I think I'll offer a fictional case study of how I would have liked the Vermont teen to be treated.....

Cross-posted to my personal blog

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