Last week, a teacher friend forwarded me a letter one of his students had sent asking him to re-mark an assignment she had failed.
Her reasoning was clear: She needed the grade. His reasoning for giving her the failing grade was equally clear: She didn’t follow the instructions and she didn’t understand the material. Plus, he told me, she had been skipping classes.
But still, she asked, could she please redo the assignment?
The last I heard, the answer was still no. As it should be.
The student’s request for special treatment was infuriating but not at all unusual. I’ve heard similar complaints from other teachers. Students asking for special treatment, do-agains for missed tests, re-takes after failures.
I’ve seen it, too. Last year, I taught a course in public speaking at a college and had to field requests from seven students who wanted special treatment. They said they were nervous. They had stage fright. A few had official documentation testifying to the legitimacy of their anxiety. Individually, they approached me to ask if they could complete the public speaking class in private.
Like my friend, I felt infuriated. No, I told them, you can’t take a mandatory public speaking class in private. Setting different course outcomes for a special few wasn’t fair to the other seasick students in the class who diligently delivered their speeches. Nor was it fair to ask me to bend the institution’s standards just a little lower so they could clear the bar.
Yet, as infuriated I feel, I have trouble blaming students for pressuring me to cut corners and modify the curricula to help them pass (even when they’ve demonstrably failed). A lot of these students have come through schools that have permitted, and even encouraged, this sort of behaviour.
It’s the pay-for-play model of education. Students accrue crippling debts to pay for an education. They want what they pay for.
This isn’t the ranting of an old-fashioned teacher. Schools are shameless about treating students like ATMs.
Here’s one example. The same friend who sent me the student’s request for a re-do sent me a passage from a mandatory disabilities training course he’s required to complete. The school, speaking through the training, says unambiguously that “According to the Customer Service Standard, students are indeed ‘customers’. Faculty, staff and student leaders are among those at the University who are ‘service providers’.”
So it’s hard blame students for acting like obnoxious customers to their service providers when schools obnoxiously reduce them to customers.
In this regard, nobody can say students learn nothing from school. Many deserve a place on the dean’s list for adapting to the inhumanity they find in institutional schooling.
This sad situation plays out at many schools. Indeed, clawing back some of the moral authority for teachers is one of the reasons Ontario’s college teachers have gone on strike. Let’s hope they win.
If educators want students to treat learning with the seriousness and respect it deserves, educators must treat students seriously and respectfully. This proposition is painfully obvious, but at least in the higher levels of education where bureaucrats write disability training manuals, such a thought is alien.
The real school exists between teachers and students who treat the knowledge they inherit with the awe and reverence it’s owed.
Education of any lasting meaning will never be found between “customers” and “service providers.”
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is a communications and professional writing instructor at the University of Toronto.
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