A lot of things have changed since I was a public school student back in the Stone Age, much of it for the worse. One of the changes that is hurting students in public education is the loss of hard-nosed, critical teachers who demand excellence and accept no excuses. Teachers in today’s politically-correct education environment are expected to be sympathetic, supportive, and encouraging at all times, even when students do shoddy work and put forth little or no effort. Today’s politically-correct public school system wants teachers to be touchy-feely types who are willing to go to great lengths to avoid hurting a student’s feelings. As a result, every year America’s public schools graduate another crop of students who think mediocrity is acceptable, don’t know what it means to struggle to meet high expectations, and cannot handle constructive criticism.
I challenge the reader to think back to your own school years. Which teachers do you now remember with fondness and respect? All these years later I remember and appreciate the teachers who demanded the most from me, refused to accept anything but my very best, and were not reluctant to reject work that did not meet their exacting standards. The ones I don’t respect and in most cases don’t even remember were the touchy-feely teachers who were more concerned about my fragile ego and self-esteem, those who accepted substandard work rather than risk hurting my feelings. These were the teachers who wanted students to like them and be their friends. Fortunately for me, there weren’t many of those in my day.
Times were much different when I was a public school student. In addition to being encouraged to read the Bible, pray, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance every morning in class, our teachers were allowed to set high expectations and be demanding. In fact, they were expected to do these things by the principal, parents, and society in general. Teachers in my day did not fret over whether or not they had hurt a student’s feelings. In fact, hurting our feelings was considered an excellent way to motivate us. I had an English teacher who would require students who had turned in less than acceptable essays to stand in front of the class and read their work out loud, one paragraph at a time. At the end of each paragraph she would cut our work to shreds, sparing no criticism, and worrying not a whit about whether the experience was demeaning for us. It was and it was intended to be. Her message was clear: I know you can do better work and I expect you to.
A little embarrassment in front of our peers was an effective motivator. After just one instance of having a poorly-written essay I had thrown together at the last minute torn apart in front of the class, I never failed to give that English teacher my very best work. She made me a better writer, but more importantly she showed me how important it was to discipline myself to do the hard work of meeting high expectations. To this day it pains me that she died before my first book was published. I would have enjoyed showing it to her and thanking her for making it possible. She, on the other hand, would have probably skimmed through it, given the book an B minus, and told me I could do better. She would have been right.
My English teacher was not the only demanding instructor I remember with fondness and respect. My history teacher in high school was also my football coach. He was as demanding in the classroom as he was on the playing field—maybe even more. For him teaching history was not just a side job he had to do in order to coach. He held a graduate degree in history and took his teaching responsibilities seriously. One of his favorite teaching methods was to give a long reading assignment over the weekend and then question us in class about it on Monday. Any student—boy or girl—who incorrectly answered a question was required to duck walk to the end of the hall and back before returning to class. Those of us who played football not only had to duck walk, we had to run extra wind sprints after practice that day. I studied harder in this high school class than I did in any course throughout my entire college career, including graduate and doctorate level courses.
The importance of the academic content I learned from hard-nosed, critical, demanding teachers pales in importance when compared with the life lessons I learned. These tough teachers taught my peers and me responsibility, accountability, how to deal with adversity, that actions have consequences, and perseverance; lessons that are not being taught by touchy-feely teachers who are afraid to hurt a student’s feelings. Writing on this subject, syndicated columnist John Rosemond had this to say: “The Duke Endowment is giving Davidson, Duke, Johnson C. Smith, and Furman universities $3.4 million to study why so many of today’s college students report high levels of stress and anxiety and to find ways of enhancing their ‘resiliency,’ which the project defines as the ability to thrive despite adversity and difficult circumstances.” Rosemond goes on to say that he “…will tell these institutions for free why today’s college students find it difficult to cope. It’s because they have never had to deal with high expectations, demands, and high standards that don’t waiver because they need encouragement.”
Rosemond claims that today’s parents would scream bloody murder if a teacher was as critical and demanding in the ways so many of mine were back in the day. He is right which, of course, explains why the public schools have so many touchy-feely teachers who turn out a new crop of emotionally-challenged wimps every year who cannot cope with high expectations or demanding situations. What America needs if it is going to survive in a globally competitive world is more teachers like I had back in the day, teachers who reject the work of students who fail to do their best on assignments, teachers who take lackluster students to task right in front of their peers. We also need principals, school superintendents, and school board members who will tell parents who complain about their little darlings being treated this way to buzz off or, better yet, to go duck walk down the hall.