Fires in the Bathroom: Advice for Teachers from High School Students by Kathleen Cushman
For this book, Cushman interviewed dozens of high school students about their educational experiences and what they would like to tell their teachers. Some important topics covered are motivation, relationships, behavior, and classroom culture. At least half of the book’s text comes from direct quotes from students telling about positive and negative school experiences, and what they think teachers can do to teach them better.
The most important part of this book is the perspective that is so often ignored in conversations about education: that of the student. We need to be aware of how demoralizing school can be for many students and be as empathetic to their struggles as possible. Reading the words of the students in this book reminds teachers of that and builds that empathy. There are some really sad stories about bad experiences students have had with callous, careless or inept teachers. Teachers do need to know what school is like for students, and just imaginatively “putting yourself in their shoes” isn’t enough, not when there’s such a gap of years, culture, experience, attitude, and knowledge between the teacher and student. And with huge classes and the need to establish authority, these conversations and questions aren’t really always possible between teachers and students. There are some questions in the book that I would be embarrassed or afraid to ask my own students. I always do want feedback from my students, but I’m also kind of afraid of it. What if they want me to do something I don’t know how to do, or that I’m not allowed to do? What if their feedback really means “make it easy for me to pass” or “don’t make me work”?
That is one of my biggest issues with the book. While many of the snippets of advice did align well with best practices, some of the students’ suggestions were self-serving. There were the expected complaints about homework, discipline, long assignments. Here’s an example:
“Find out why we don’t like a particular literary work. ‘Different students don’t like different books for different reasons. If we’re reading Jane Eyre, I might not like it because it’s stupid, and Daryl might not like it because it’s too long. There was no helping that book.’ -Tiffany.”
Now, I don’t know how knowing that a student doesn’t like a book because it’s “stupid” or “too long” is going to change a teacher’s plans. These are really vague and lazy complaints, the type I wouldn’t dream of taking seriously in my classroom. I’m not going to cut a book in half because Daryl thinks it’s too long, or hand Tiffany a Harlequin because it’s not as “stupid” as Jane Eyre. If I did that, my lesson would lose all integrity and standards. My response would be first to try to find them something in the book to latch onto and relate to, and if that doesn’t work and the complaints don’t stop I’d say, “Tough. There are going to be some things you have to do in life that you don’t like. This assignment is a requirement if you want to pass the class.” I’m all for giving students choice in some assignments, but there have to be some common texts that every student reads, and students do need to learn to deal uncomplainingly with unpleasant tasks.
Some students even talked matter-of-factly about how they (or their classmates) had mistreated teachers who had revealed a lack of confidence or experience, and they displayed no remorse or conscience pangs about their behavior. Instead, the tone was as if the teacher had deserved the disrespect by showing a bit of vulnerability. Fresh from the wounds of my first two years of teaching, that hit home. Now I think students need a book about what it’s like for their teachers to work so hard and get abused in return.
Sometimes the book was frustrating to read because the students’ advice was contradictory. On bullying: “My teachers should intervene, even if I say I don’t want them to.” One example headline: “Treat students consistently, but also as individuals.” Students’ opinions on group work, public praise, participation and homework were as diverse as the students themselves, proving again something teachers already know: you can’t please everybody.
A teacher may not be allowed to follow the advice of this book because of forces larger than herself, like the school policies she is required to follow in order to keep her job. The students’ advice often directly contradicted the advice–and the orders–that teachers are given from administrators. In previous schools, I was not allowed to submit a discipline referral on a student unless I had previously talked to the student’s parents. But the students from Fires in the Bathroom say that calling parents is a betrayal of the students’ trust, that teachers should try to work it out with the student, treating him like an adult. There is another section of the book that basically consists of students complaining about dress codes, which are set by administrators and school boards, not teachers. Believe me, most teachers hate enforcing dress code as much as students hate following it. I love that my current school doesn’t have one. Maybe the students’ opinions in the book, some of which are well-argued, should be a catalyst for larger policy-making conversations that would question requirements like the ones at my old schools. But in the meantime, it is frustrating for a teacher to read that the rules that she has to follow to keep in good standing with her superiors will hurt her standing with her students.
Despite discouraging contradictions, the book is valuable for its attempt to shift a teacher’s perspective in ways that can help them build stronger relationships with students. The most immediately actionable parts of the book were places where the data was compiled into charts and worksheets. There is an excellent questionaire for use in the first week or so of school, as well as charts about timing of assignments and tests, consequences and behaviors. Most of these resources were intended for teachers to do some real self-examination and soul-searching, like “Am I Playing Favorites?” and “What Do I Expect of Students, and How Do I Show It?”
Note: the students interviewed for this book are actually much closer to my own age than the age of my students. The interviews were conducted in spring 2002, when I graduated from high school, and the book was published in 2003. I feel that students have changed in the last ten years, but it’s hard to say how much of that difference comes from the 10 years that have passed, and how much from my change in perspective in going from exclusive educational settings like my family-like Catholic high school and selective college, to Title I public schools. At the same time, we are considered part of the same generation by most reckonings. My own sister is a year younger than my current students.