In Learning on the River, a first-year English teacher in Mississippi takes a sick day and comes back to discover his ninth-grade students have ripped down the Christmas decorations, thrown books on the floor, knocked desks around and stolen things from his desk. He takes down all the students’ work and their photos and writes them a letter.

I wanted our classroom to be a place where you would feel at home.  That’s why I spent my time and money to decorate for the holidays.  That’s why I spent my time and money to take and post pictures of you everywhere.  That’s why I spent my time hanging your work in the hallways, on our walls, and our ceiling.  That’s why I spent my money on gifts for Mr. Henley’s Favorite Things.  All of my energy and money was spent to make you feel welcome and appreciated.  You all work so hard in this class and I wanted to reward you.

. . . Among others, you have lost the privilege to leave my room.  You have lost the privilege of work sheets.  You will be copying everything by hand since I buy all the paper you receive in our room.  These privileges will be returned as soon as you can show me you deserve them again.

Only a few students trashed the room, but others sat back and let it happen, he writes.

About Joanne


  1. Wow. How awful. And what a slap in the face that would feel like.

    One of the problems with communism, my dad always said, was that people will not respect things they perceive as “common property” – there’s no incentive to maintain your land if it doesn’t belong to you. I wonder if some of that was coming into play here.

    The sad thing is, the kids who did it probably won’t feel bad at all.

  2. Mark Roulo says:

    Only a few students trashed the room, but others sat back and let it happen, he writes.

    Of course, if the other kids had intervened they would have risked suspension ….

  3. Richard Nieporent says:

    It sounds like a scene from Blackboard Jungle. I guess when it comes to student behavior some things never change.

  4. I wouldn’t have done the guilt trip. It’s always so whiny.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    So, perhaps it was homier after the vandalism.

  6. I don’t know. I think kids need to learn sometimes that their actions DO have an impact on the feelings of others. Whiny or not, I think it’s a good idea to let them know that (a) what the teacher did, he did for them and (b) it’s not appreciated that they vandalized all his work.

    And I think requiring the hand-copying is just fine as a punishment.

  7. j.d.salinger says:

    It’s whiny because Cal says so? Get real.

  8. CarolineSF says:

    But it’s a nonunion state with no job protection for teachers whatsoever, so according to the wisdom of the Reformy Ones, all the schools and students should be perfect and problem-free. How are they going to find a way to blame the teachers’ unions for this?

  9. “The sad thing is, the kids who did it probably won’t feel bad at all.”

    I wouldn’t be too sure of that. I know it’s natural to be cynical after something like this happens, but I’ve been in situations where something similar occurred and I got both admissions and apologies after doing exactly what this teacher did – explaining to students why this is unacceptable and how it can change people’s feelings toward you. Students at this age lack a lot of perspective – and may even come from homes where the damaging of personal property is a daily norm. I thought the teacher’s letter, which also included a good example of what their personal property is, was a good way to approach the situation.

    It’s difficult to know what to do in these situations. Attempting to pretend it didn’t bother one is a lie – because it is so deeply disappointing. Speaking with students about that isn’t giving in – it’s being the bigger person who is willing to confront the issue and admit to some vulnerability in the hopes it will make an impact on some of them.

    He’s included an essay assignment on the back of the letter – I expect he will get a lot more heart-felt apologies than he expected, since it’s somewhat anonymous.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The problem isn’t the existence of unions per se, but rather the fact that they (accidentally rather than essentially) have goals that are so at odds with sound educational policy.

    One can imagine a teacher’s union whose primary goal was, say, teacher autonomy and discretion rather than protection from firing.

    I tend to think the teacher’s response to the vandalism was a bit whiny — if the audience was adults. The audience is not adults. It is children, and children often need stuff spelled out for them that adults would take for granted.

  11. This is an interesting story. Stuff like this happens sometimes.

    I wish I knew why it happens.

  12. Ugh. I really feel for him. What a heartbreaker. I think he handled it perfectly appropriately — I don’t know if I could have done much better. The letter isn’t whiney — it is explaining to them what they have done and what the logical consequences of their action will be.

  13. Umm…where was the substitute when his room was trashed? Were the kids left there all by themselves?

  14. Why did it happen? Conflict is part of the structure of schools: the kids’ agenda never overlaps very well with the adults’ agenda. Shakespeare writes about kids hating to go to school. Utopian progressive educators think this universal conflict can be erased by peppy teachers who develop relationships with the kids and “make learning fun”. Certainly there are a few souls who can pull this off (though often at the expense of dumbing down the curriculum). But a rational approach to education acknowledges the reality of the structural conflict and develops good systems (e.g. solid discipline) to cope with it. Instead, American principals lay guilt trips on teachers for every detention they write –“why aren’t you making better connections with the kids?” The prevailing view in my district is that you can “love” the bad behavior out of kids –show you care, relate to them on a personal level, etc. I hate this wimpy approach. Adults, stand up for yourselves! Stop apologizing for merely trying to educate the kids! Stop acting as if the kids have a right to revolt if you fail to befriend them!

  15. By the way, this Mississippi teacher seems to have been trying to woo the kids’ good will –and look how they returned the favor. Sadly, many kids only respect strength and mock kindly gestures. Machiavelli’s The Prince applies to classroom management just as much as it does to polis-management –if not more so. The teacher should be willing and able to use tough measures if kids are going to harm the common good.

  16. I tend to think the teacher’s response to the vandalism was a bit whiny — if the audience was adults. The audience is not adults. It is children, and children often need stuff spelled out for them that adults would take for granted.

    This response wouldn’t be “a bit whiny” if it was adults. It would be utterly insane. Adults trash a room, you call the cops, you sue, you make them pay, whatever. The only context in which a teacher would be furious at his room’s destruction is if the students were kids.

    It would be appropriate for 7 year olds. But for teens it’s whiny. Worse than whiny, it’s manipulative martyring mama. “I’m going to explain in excruciating detail how awesome I am for having put this room together. Because it’s not enough that you trashed the room and showed no respect for property. No, what’s really awful is (sob) that I spent all this time and money putting this room together (sniff) and you all RUINED IT! So if you ever want good grade again you better write a rilly rilly long essay telling me how awesome I was for caring and how rilly rilly sorry you are for being baaaaaad.”

    I don’t think adults–particularly teachers–understand how totally fed up kids are with the self-congratulatory martyrdom that teachers dish out whenever they’re feeling unappreciated.

    No, the correct response is read them the riot act, tell them they’re all jerks, either for doing it or allowing it, take everything down and be done with it.

    The high drama of “you’ll copy it all yourself” won’t hold out–not unless he puts his own self-interest above ensuring his kids actually learn something. Of course, the guy who’d write that letter might be that kind of guy.

  17. scrooge mcduck says:

    “He’s whiny,” she whined.

  18. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Yeah… you’re right Cal.

    I take it back. Though I wasn’t actually referring to the write-an-essay-earn-your-room-back stuff, which I thought was just odd. I was only referring to the tone and the manner of the dressing-down in the letter, about which, as I said, upon reflection I have decided you are correct.

  19. Belinda Gomez says:

    The kids will think “he’s rich, so he can afford it” because he’s better off than they are, most likely white, and an outsider. I don’t know why he bothered, to be honest. Teens aren’t all that into Martha Stewart in the classroom.

  20. It’s not even whiny, it’s worse.

    The letter says YOU HURT ME!!!! in 10 feet tall letters with flashing red lights.

    And guess what? Knowing that will SATISFY the students who did it, because they did it to hurt him–and now they know they succeeded.

    He wanted their respect? He hasn’t earned it, apparently. And his response showed he doesn’t even know he’s not respected. He needs to start acting like a man worthy of respecting, not one who tries to bribe his students into liking the environment.