"Off with her head"
Bonnie C. Sheeren
Mid-May of this year, there was a viral video of a student, Jeff Bliss, telling off his World history teacher, Ms. Phung, at Duncanville High School. As is wont to happen, several minutes of video rendered all viewers as immediate experts on students, teachers and education in general. Not only that, Jeff was allowed to determine Ms. Phung’s career as he demanded that she be fired (shades of the Queen of Hearts, Alice-style). It might be helpful now that the viral part has ebbed from its epidemic proportions to deconstruct this scenario.
First of all, Jeff Bliss is an 18-year-old sophomore at this high school. As a former high school teacher, that stops me in my tracks right there. Sophomores are usually in the 15- to-16 year-old range, why is he out-of-sync? A little investigation reveals that he dropped out of school a couple of years back, then came back after realizing the world was a cold place without a high school degree. Somehow, his own mom, a teacher in a nearby district, could not convince him of the importance of education. Red flag there. Not wanting to go into family dynamics, she would have had to sign him out as a minor and I’m just wondering how she avoided truancy fines and court appearances. I suspect Jeff’s being Anglo has something to do with this since this was a fact of life for my minority students, but I’ll come back to this issue later.
Jeff would have left school under the TAKS testing regime. He returns only to find that the ground has shifted and he’s now required to pass STAAR tests. He would have had an easier time if he would have stuck around, but as the class of 2015, he was at Ground Zero of the testing nadir as Jason Stanford so helpfully explains in his op-ed piece, “Why HB5 Won’t Help the Class of 2015”. Worse than that, the present-day high school generation has been steeped in how to be successful at TAKS tests, which left them very much unprepared for the new STAAR tests. This in itself should give pause to policy makers who think testing is an answer to highly educated citizens.
Now, he’s back. He should have just gone ahead, rolled a GED into some community college courses and conquered the world from there. Instead, he elected to return to the less autocratic world of high school. In addition, he’s technically an adult in many respects (which leads to all sorts of trouble as our schools back up and we have students up to age 25 when they can no longer attend Texas high schools). Schools are in a quandary about older students being in with younger ones as developmentally, they are way out of step. Most likely, not knowing what to do with him, they placed him in a remedial World History class to be sure he could pass the STAAR test and they could promote him before he reached his twenties.
Now let’s switch to the teacher. There’s another dynamic at play here. Jeff is male and Anglo. Ms. Phung, the teacher, is female and Asian. I do wonder if he would have given the same grief to a male, Anglo teacher, but since we don’t have a control group, we’ll never know. There is a feeling amongst teachers that the heavy criticism of their profession has a tinge of misogyny about it. Other heavily male professions aren’t usually labeled as “lazy” or “in it for the paycheck”.
Besides gender issues, there’s cultural issues. Phung is a Vietnamese surname. Most Vietnamese-Americans are just one generation from their parents’ refugee status. In the best book about a clash of cultures, "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down", Anne Fadiman carefully documents why we should take time to understand each other’s traditions. Her book describes the Hmong (which are an amalgam of Laotian, Cambodian and Vietnamese ethnic groups) have academically highly successful children as their elders constantly lecture them on how the responsibility for education lies with the students, not the teachers. Just being several generations out from an immigrant family myself, I have to say that this is probably pervasive amongst peoples trying to leave oppression behind and ensure success in this country. Add to that a possible cultural orientation of Ms. Phung that students should shoulder the accountability for their education, and Jeff comes across looking like a spoiled brat.
In addition, in this era of standardized testing, the best means to career security is to “drill and kill” which means worksheet after worksheet. There is little to no doubt in my mind that the Duncanville High administrators were clear that’s what teachers do to prepare for STAAR (the saying is, “In fall we teach, in spring, we test”). Being caught at their own game, their reaction (as is true with most school administrations) was to find the first available bus and throw Ms. Phung underneath it rather than address the issue. This was only reinforced by a bizarre video where Jeff is interviewed by a local news station, while his mom sits off camera making comments.
She refuses to appear on camera because she is herself a teacher. This should give everyone a clue that these are treacherous times for teachers. It’s crazy-making too, because the school districts and TEA want the sausage, but don’t want to check how it’s made; otherwise, they’d know that worksheets and disincentivized teaching is the path to success in this upside-down universe they’ve created.
The final variable that almost all commentators missed on this video was the fact that it appeared via camera phone held by another student. It’s not uncommon to try to teach an engaging lesson only to see the tops of students’ heads as they watch the latest movie on their phones or text their friends. Trying to compete with smart phones is almost impossible in this day and age unless the administration lays down the law (see “bus-throwing-under” above). In addition, the student seemed to “know” when Jeff’s tirade would begin. Interesting. And once again, having cell phones for classroom entertainment is never a problem for students, only for teachers.
One final, final note particular to my background: I grew up in a refinery town. Long hair was not allowed in the plant, as it was dangerous. Jeff would have a hard time finding work there (or many places) with his hair flowing down his back. In fact, there was someone at my high school who “let his hair down” at the wrong time, wrong place in the refinery and was fatally entangled in machinery there. Oh, to grow up in the suburbs, far from the hard facts of life and the ability to do as one pleases!
All in all, the conversation around this event was not constructive, but quick epithets mainly aimed at the teacher. I don’t know Jeff. I don’t know Ms. Phung. Nevertheless, I do know that YouTube videos are no way to discuss education. Let’s all slow down, take a deep breath and find some solutions—instead of taking camera phone footage as gospel truth. Maybe then, we’ll get somewhere.