The campification of school
Updated: Jun 10
Having worked as a full-time and substitute teacher for close to fifteen years—and as a parent to a child in elementary school—I've taken note of the culture of a wide array of school types: public, charter, private, religious, etc.
The best schools strive to maintain a rigorous curriculum, traditional teacher-centered instruction, and high standards for student behavior.
Of the schools where I've recently worked or toured, the most impressive are the Alliance Marc & Eva Stern Math and Science High School on the Cal State L.A. campus, Le Lycée Français de Los Angeles Elementary School in Culver City, and St. Mark Catholic Elementary School in Venice. Many years ago, as a substitute, I remember being impressed by the scholastic atmosphere at Glenwood Elementary School in Sun Valley and Panorama High School in Panorama City.
Among all of these schools, the student population is highly diverse—socioeconomically, racially, and linguistically. And while there's no question that the overall circumstances of a typical Lycée Français student are likely to be much more privileged than the typical Alliance student, both schools educate their students well and prepare them for college. Schools like this have adhered to the principles of intellectual and behavioral discipline, while others have seen a breakdown of these principles, resulting in what I've termed "campification."
Campification is a growing tendency in highly dysfunctional schools—either because of a misapplied "progressive" philosophy or, worse, because of sheer desperation to maintain some semblance of order—to foster an overall culture of informality that is more appropriate to summer camp than to an institution of learning.
Here are a few signs that a school is on its way to becoming campified:
"If you can hear my voice..."
There are middle schools (and even some high schools) in which students are so out-of-control during class that the teachers have resorted to this rather feeble attempt to bring them to attention. The idea is for the teacher to say, "If you can hear my voice, clap once" at a normal volume and then to repeat the phrase with "clap twice," "clap three times," (etc.) as the students magically quiet down (while they're clapping!). I've rarely seen it work this way. Most teachers practically have to yell the first time in order to hear their own voice. And savvy middle schoolers know that they certainly don't have to clap if they just "didn't hear" the teacher's voice.
The bottom line: if the students being able to hear the teacher's voice is even in question, it's not a classroom. It's a rec room.
Call me old-fashioned, but the 55-minute class period (or however long it is) should never be interrupted except for an administrative observation or an emergency. Sometimes department chairs, coordinators, and other teachers with auxiliary responsibilities will need to deliver materials or information relevant to the instruction at hand or a very pressing issue, and of course, in these cases, it makes sense for them to pop into a classroom as unobtrusively as possible.
But a well-run school should have a policy that keeps these interruptions to an absolute minimum. It should not be assumed that just because the lesson has moved from "direct instruction" to "independent work" that it doesn't make any difference how many people march in and out of the room, opening and closing doors, asking questions, making announcements, etc. It matters! It sends a message to the students that there really is no block of time completely dedicated to quiet, focused study.
Every school needs its "Spirit Week" and a few other special days when the mood is somewhat more relaxed and festive. But in order for these days to be appreciated, they really do have to feel like a breath of fresh air. This means they should be rare. They should stand in contrast to most other days, where students and teachers are not wearing pajamas, costumes, and Dodgers gear.
Good schools know how to rein in this kind of thing, and therefore make the special days actually feel special. Campified schools, unfortunately, seem to have a new "spirit" event or "school-wide community building" event every other week.
Students should address their teachers as Mr., Ms., or Mrs. followed by the teacher's last name. I know: what a fascist I am. But really, it's a simple, direct, and universal tradition. It's an entry-level requirement of professionalism.
I'd like to emphasize the importance of the student including the teacher's last name. Anyone who's worked in certain schools knows about the horrible habit of students calling their teachers "Miss" or "Mister" without a last name. When and where in the world would this ever be appropriate and not socially weird? Maybe if the students were in a movie about 19th Century street urchins who sell newspapers and say things like, "Hey, Mister!" or "Gee, Miss, I don't rightly know," then it might make sense. But a 21st Century school should expect students to say, "Good morning, Ms. Ramirez."
Let Schools be Schools
Young people, like everyone else, need a balance of formality and informality, a balance of work and play, and a balance of seriousness and silliness. A single school cannot provide everything at once, and teachers cannot be effective instructors, disciplinarians, counselors, mentors, and friends at once, despite the trendy and romantic notion that a teacher is a "superhero" who can play any variation of adult role-model at any time. All students need access to the full range of scholastic, artistic, athletic, and other extra-curricular pursuits. If social and civic priorities don't address these needs, then schools become confused, cluttered catch-alls, desperate to please everyone but educating no one.