McKENZIE: Some teachers dehumanize students

July 20, 2013 

Recently I was driving to work listening to the radio. Nick Turse was discussing his new book, "Kill Anything That Moves."

In the book, Turse draws upon classified documents and interviews with former Vietnam veterans and Vietnamese survivors of the war, both of whom describe the horrific acts committed against Vietnamese civilians by U.S. soldiers. The most chilling revelation of the interview was Turse's description of the ways in which young soldiers were taught to dehumanize Vietnamese civilians, thus enabling the soldiers to carry out the "unofficial" policy to "kill anything that moves."

To eliminate empathy, the soldiers had to view the Vietnamese civilians as "something" other than human. They were to follow the MGR, or "Mere Gook Rule."

That is, the soldiers were told to never refer to the civilians as Vietnamese. They were to call them gooks, dinks, slopes, slants or rice eaters. When I heard this, it was a moment of insight, sadly.

I have experienced this type of dehumanization firsthand. It is occurring today, in America, in our schools and to our children.

I was an urban elementary school teacher and principal for 20 years. For the past decade, I have been a professor and educational researcher, spending a great deal of time in schools. I have researched and written about the equity traps that prevent educators from being successful with all students and the emotional abuse perpetrated particularly on students of colors. It wasn't, however, until I heard Turse's depiction of the dehumanization of the Vietnamese that I realized "dehumanization" is the most appropriate description of what occurs in some schools to our most vulnerable children.

It's hard to believe that teachers, particularly elementary teachers, would dehumanize their students, describing them as demons or gangsters or monsters. But I've heard it.

An elementary teacher said it would be a good idea to remove all the troubled kids from the teachers' classrooms and put them in one room and just let them kill each other off so the teachers could really teach the kids who wanted to learn.

And the second-grade teacher who projected that a student in her class was going "to be pregnant by the time she's 14," as well as the kindergarten teacher who disparagingly said one of her 5-year-old students is going to be "gay." And teachers who said they are mean to their students because that's all their students understand.

I've even witnessed in a second-grade classroom two students sitting in desks completely encircled with butcher paper up to the ceiling, creating in essence a cocoon prison. In all of these examples, and there are many more, the children were depicted as something "other," as not normal, or truly human.

I realize this is distasteful and some might believe I am painting with a broad brush, coloring all teachers as inhuman or abusers, but that is not my intent. There are incredible teachers and schools, I've worked with them. That does not mean we can cover our eyes and refuse to look at what is happening in many schools, mainly those schools who serve the historically marginalized — students of color, students with disabilities, students whose families live in poverty — but also students who are just different.

Even one child mistreated and dehumanized is unacceptable. The consequences are tragic for that child and for the community.

Observe the recent events sparking heated debate over gun control and improved mental health care. It's hardly a leap of logic to conjecture what can happen when one feels dehumanized. Do those who feel dehumanized, dehumanize others?

Some might argue that this dehumanization of students is a result of teachers being dehumanized, that we expect teachers to be more like automatons than humans. There is increased accountability along with decreased funding, large classes, school violence and diversity of student needs. We demand much from our teachers with little compensation and respect.

Others might argue that the United States is mired in the "isms" — racism, sexism, elitism, ableism — and homophobia. So then are our schools.

Teachers, like their students, do not come into schools as tabulae rasae, or blank slates. They are inscribed with beliefs, prejudices and possible unexamined privileges that might advance a notion of meritocracy that allows them to explain the failure of their students as inherit deficiencies in the students themselves and their families.

The reasons for this hidden inhumanity, this dehumanization of our children, might be complex, but the position we must take is simple. We must collectively agree that all our children, and that means everyone's children, are the most precious resources we have and we must refuse to tolerate any mistreatment of anyone's child. If we do not, we are all complicit in perpetuating this inhumanity toward our children. The consequences will be dire.

Kathryn Bell McKenzie, Ph.D., was a public school teacher and principal for 20 years. Currently, she is Professor and Director of the Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership at California State University, Stanislaus.

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