An 18-year old Texas student at Duncanville High School, Jeff Bliss, simply had enough — and could not take it anymore. After being dismissed from class for asking a question and being told to “quit bitching” in Grade 12 World History class on May 6, 2013, he launched into a ninety second condemnation of his teacher’s uninspired attitude and habit of “packet teaching” depriving students of the opportunity to actually engage in learning.
As the son of a teacher, and a student who returned to high school after having dropped-out, he expected more from teachers in his school. Caught on video by an “undercover” student, his outburst went viral and discussions broke out over both the appropriateness of his behaviour and the critical education reform issue he raised in the classroom rant. When the teacher, Julie Phung , was placed on leave with pay, a fierce public furor erupted over whether the outspoken Bliss may have a point.
Whether intended or not, Jeff Bliss happened to hit on many of the hot button issues in the American Education War. “If you would just get up and teach ‘em instead of handing them a frickin packet, yo, there’s kids in here who don’t learn like that,” he said. “They need to learn face to face.” When Phong, sitting at her desk, repeatedly admonishes him to leave and says he’s “wasting” her time, Bliss unloads with his own lesson about teaching:
“You want kids to come into your class, you want them to get excited for this? You gotta come in here and you gotta make them excited,” the tall student with flowing blond hair and red high tops says in the video, standing at the front of the class and gesticulating to further emphasize his point. “You want a kid to change and start doing better? You gotta touch his freakin heart. You can’t expect a kid to change if all you do is just tell them.” His closer: “This is my country’s future and my education.”
Local Dallas TV news affiliates quickly picked up the video, and by May 14, it exceeded 1.8 million views and had gleaned international attention. The Innovative Educator, Lisa Neilsen, a strong advocate of “student voice” defended the student’s right to voice his opinion in a school where that was not normally encouraged or even permitted. But public commenters were quick to point out the disrespectful nature of the outburst in an environment where teachers are supposed to be respected. They also warned this video doesn’t show us the full story.
The official response from the Duncanville Independent School District was rather instructive. “As a district with a motto of Engaging Hearts and Minds we focus on building positive relationships with students and designing engaging work that is meaningful,” the district said in a media statement. “We want our students and teachers to be engaged, but the method by which the student expressed his concern could have been handled in a more appropriate way. We are and will continue to be open to listening to students.”
Many educators were upset because it fed public perceptions of the “bad teacher.” One well-known American educational blogger, high school English teacher Tom Panarese, expressed his profound discouragement in a post entitled Why the Jeff Bliss story makes me want to quit.
” I’m probably just seeing end-of-the-school-year exhaustion manifest itself “, Panarese wrote, noting that stressful June testing was about to begin. Then he added: ” But it seems that the conversation about education as it is via social media has been happening this way for years and as noble as Jeff Bliss’s champions might think his “I Am Spartacus” moment might be, it won’t really change anything except get a black mark on his history teacher’s record.”
Was Texas high school student Jeff Bliss justified in speaking out against mediocrity in teaching? Do we know enough about conditions in the school or that class to pass judgement on the teacher’s approach or the student’s behaviour? Should students have more of a voice in shaping what is learned and how they are taught, especially in senior high school? Are educators expressing legitimate concerns about the dangers of “trial by underground You Tube clip”?