I have just read an article by Diane Conrad from U of A about the issues behind youth incarceration in Canada (2006.) I have taught many students who were considered to be “at-risk”and I am continually trying to find ways to help them. I have looked for one key sign to watch for in students before they start to “derail”, hoping to intervene before it’s too late. Some of the issues posed by Conrad were the ability of schools to create welcoming, relevant environments, the attempts of schools to normalize behaviours,and the distribution of power within schools. It was this third issue, of power, that resonated with me when I read this article. I have actually seen one consistent factor behind students who do not succeed in school, and overall, it’s non-conformity. I have taught so many students who have significant learning issues, yet, if they work to the best of their ability, they get through school. With the right support team, it is possible for a child who can barely read, to complete high school. I know, this raises many issues regarding special education, but please stay with me on the conformity issue. I am not worried about the desire of special education teachers to do everything they can to support their students. The students who are most seriously at-risk, are the ones who have a need to resist the conformity required to be a student. I have had students who will hang on to a self-destruct position of resistance as if their very survival depended upon it. I’m not talking about abused nor neglected children. These are children from a variety of backgrounds who fight an inner battle on a daily basis to resist the expectation to follow the rules of school. I have seen the resolve in their eyes: If pushed, they will face any consequences, rather than give in. I’m talking about a minority of students in my own experience, maybe about 5-10% of the population, but this is the common trait I have seen in each of them. It has become so obvious to me now, that I can spot the students who aren’t likely to stay in school beyond grade 9 within one or two meetings with them. Conrad refers to Scott (1990) in a history of subordinated peoples using subversive acts as their only protest against oppression: “Youths’resistant behaviours”, says Conrad, “can be seen as responses to relations of domination and subordination.” She then goes on to define a “curriculum of conformity”, and I know that Conrad understands these kids that I’m talking about! If justice is based upon consideration of individual needs, rather than a system of rules, then the power imbalance that these students are so strongly resisting will dissolve from schools. This is exactly what I speak of when I describe classroom management, and I try to acknowledge the voice of students. I applaud the strength of character it takes for students to stand up for their rights, and I think that as teachers we have to commit to finding ways to create a balance of power in our classrooms.
In fairness to Diane Conrad, her article can be found in the Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies (4-2) 2006.