Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From the emergency room to the classroom -- bias and prejudice in "treatment"

Recently, a nurse named Lou Davis published a piece on slate.com, answering the question of what it is like to treat (medically) a person who has committed heinous acts, crimes or atrocities.  The idea is to explore how our biases, beliefs and preconceived notions get in the way of our being able to perform in the manner in which we are tasked. 

Davis writes:
The care I give is, to all intents and purposes, exactly the same as I would give to anyone else. I would be as attentive, my standards are as high, I am as diligent in giving pain relief or in ensuring that the wounds I am suturing are done in exactly the same way.  Outwardly then, there is no difference. None at all. You could stand by my side and be able to tell no difference.   
Inwardly is rather different. Over the years, I have treated murderers, rapists, pedophiles. I have carried on working while some of these patients have made comments, been rude or abusive.  I know that my standards have never been compromised.  That isn't to say that I don't have feelings of anger or revulsion or even hate. But it isn't my job to show those feelings.
As a lifelong fan of the hour-long medical drama genre (Chicago Hope, ER, Grey’s Anatomy, House; Marcus Welby was a bit before my time), this is a sub-plot that has been played out many times: the rapist or murderer who has been wounded by his (or her) victim and is rushed to the emergency room for treatment, where there is always at least one doctor or nurse who expresses his or her anguish at having to treat such a despicable person.  An example is ER, season 4, episode 13, “Carter’s Choice,” synopsis courtesy of  fandango.com:
The hospital's blood supply runs out during a devastating blizzard, forcing the doctors to make literal life and death decisions. Should [Doctor] Carter (Noah Wyle) try to save the life of a seriously wounded serial rapist, or should the blood go to someone more "deserving"?
A more extreme version of this same plot device was used in the House episode “The Tyrant,” in which the doctors are called upon to treat an ailing patient who turns out to be a genocidal African warlord:
When a controversial African politician (guest star James Earl Jones) falls ill, he is brought to Princeton Plainsboro [Hospital] for treatment. The team struggles with whether to help a merciless dictator being sued in the United States for crimes against humanity in his country.  (courtesy House Wiki)
Watch the full episode here.
I’d like to think that in real life, the decision is more cut-and-dry.  If you are a doctor or nurse, you treat the patient in front of you.  Ultimately, the course of action is perhaps best summed up in the words of advice given to Davis by a colleague: "Just think to yourself:  'We care for you, not about you' and it will make it easier."

In the classroom, however, the situation is somewhat different.  We do care, both for, and about, our students. We are tasked with acting in loco parentis, and our charge is not just imparting curriculum but, to a certain extent anyway (and we can agree to disagree about how much, as anyone who has read my posts will realize I am not a “progressive” in most ways) educating “the whole child.”  We do get emotionally involved with our children, we involve ourselves in their lives, we interact with their families, we live (in many cases) in their communities.

In other words, we cannot simply, to use a phrase common to my beloved medical dramas, “treat ‘em and street ‘em.”

In my classrooms, I have had violent kids, felons, drug dealers, hardcore gangbangers, kids with extensive records, and kids who have committed (or allegedly committed) horrific acts.  I have had students cuss me out, threaten me, even engage me physically. And I will admit that the knowledge of these things does change the way I feel about them, the way I look at them, the way I “inwardly,” to use Nurse Davis’s word, regard them.  But do I let it affect how I teach them?

I hope not.  But it’s possible, I’ll admit.  I am, as they say, only human.

I certainly grant occasional perks and privileges, special considerations if you will, to exceptional, hard-working, responsible and respectful students.  I certainly deny privileges to students who habitually behave in the opposite fashion.  And I believe, as do most sensible people, that the idea of giving awards and rewards to everyone in the room to avoid hurt feelings is just plain dumb, not to mention counter-productive.  But all this is in relation or in response to student actions and behaviors in my classroom and with either me or the other students.  That’s not the same as treating a student differently based on “prior bad acts,” to use the appropriate legal phrase (okay, I love the hour-long crime drama genre as well).

Teachers have a bad habit of both talking up and talking down students.  I’ve done it, as has every teacher I’ve ever worked with.  Sometimes, I can imagine that that “talking down” could lead, in a teacher of lesser integrity, to a situation where the students don’t get a fair shake from day one.  A hypothetical conversation:
Teacher A:  Hey, you got your class lists from next term?  Let me see.
Teacher B: Yeah, sure. Here.
Teacher A:  Oh, dang!  You’ve got Umfufu?  Oh man, I’m sorry. She’s a nightmare!  Last year, she ___________ [fill in the blank with whatever damning anecdotes you can dream up]. And when she was in intermediate school, she was suspended twice for ____________________ [ditto].
Now it’s up to Teacher B how, or whether, to utilize that information. 

If you’re teacher B, does that conversation linger in your mind when Umfufu steps into your classroom? When you take attendance for the first time, does that knowledge affect the way you interpret the look she gives you?  The first time she’s late for class, or fails to bring in homework, do you say, “Yeah, it figures.”  (Even if it’s just behind closed doors to your colleagues?  If you’re a teacher, I’m guessing you know EXACTLY what I mean.)

Is the teacher situation analogous to the doctor/nurse situation? What do you think of the advice given Nurse Davis by her colleague?  Am I right that such a maxim simply would not work in a school environment where caring is de facto part of the job?  Or do you think teachers actually should be more detached, professional, and less “involved” than they sometimes are?

I’m just A.S.K.ing…


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