Perspective: Meet the Oklahoma teacher whose tweet about quitting went viral
David Irby taught in public schools for 25 years, but says he could no longer handle students’ bad behavior and the parents and administrators who put up with it
A few weeks ago, a band director in Norman, Oklahoma, decided to resign from his job. To share the news with friends and family, he went to social media, posting on Facebook and a little-used Twitter account the reasons that he quit.
What happened next is a story for our time, in multiple ways.
Until March 15, most of David Irby’s posts were retweets and comments on sporting events, nothing to write home about. He was not overtly political, posted nothing controversial. But his resignation tweet caught fire, and by the time he shut his Twitter account down, it had been viewed 1.2 million times.
The topic? The disrespect he received as a teacher — from students, parents, politicians and the public in general.
Being a member of “the public in general,” I wanted to know exactly what I had done. So I reached out and found Irby at home — he had a week off before starting a new job. He was surprisingly upbeat for a man who had just jumped off a sinking ship. But his story was depressing for anyone who values civility.
As it turns out, the main problem was the students — their rudeness, their lack of respect for authority, their casual use of profanity, their cruelty to peers.
“When I was taught how to teach, 20, 30 years ago, it was a different world. We were told ‘Don’t smile until January.’ You were supposed to discipline strongly, control your classroom, don’t get personally involved with students, demand that they call you ‘Mr.’ or ‘Mrs.’
“That’s what was expected of teachers, and there was a huge delineation of authority. The teacher was the authority in the classroom,” he said.
Over the years, however, Irby, who is 49, has seen the authority of teachers degraded. Students don’t respond to a teacher’s attempts to maintain order, and when confronted about their children’s bad behavior, parents tend to side with their kids over the teacher. Many students acted like they were at recess even when they were in class, Irby said.
“There was no respect given to teachers. I would say, “Don’t use language like that. They would turn around and say ‘(expletive) you.’ I would say, ‘take your hood off.’ They would say, ‘No.’ Take your earbuds out. ‘No.’ Put away your phone. ... They would just look at me with the knowledge that there’s nothing I could do to make them do what I say.”
Twenty years ago, Irby said, a teacher could get a student in line by saying they’d be sent to the principal’s office. But administrators today are too worried about getting students and their parents upset, hurting their feelings, he said. And it does no good to call parents. “Parents will tell you, ‘I told my son they can speak that way.’ So, where do we go from there?
“I’ll tell you the perfect example. A few weeks ago, a student was talking to her friends at the beginning of class. And she — three times — says, ‘What the (expletive).’ I walked up to her and said ‘Please do not say that word. That is very vulgar. Do not use that word.’
“She looks at me and goes, ‘What word?’”
The student had not even realized that she had used the word, and didn’t believe Irby until her friends confirmed it. But even then, she said, “Well, it’s not a cuss word in my house.”
Parents, then, are just as big a problem as the kids. “I can’t get on the kids about having their phones out in class when parents are texting them during the day,” Irby said. “And if you take their phone away, (parents) think it’s a breach of privacy, you’re trying to steal their kids’ phone.”
“I think every parent should come spend an hour at a school. Walk the hallway, sit down in the classroom, listen to the language, see the kids yelling and screaming and not listening. There’s two or three kids wanting to learn, but they can’t.”
Irby said his straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back moment came recently, when he was at the front of the class lecturing on Valentine’s Day. “Two students at the front of the class were actively listening, nine or 10 kids behind them would look up occasionally, and at the back of the class, a group was throwing candy at (another child) — M&Ms, Skittles, that kind of thing. Then they finally took out a sucker, a Dum-Dum, licked it, and threw it in the student’s hair.”
Irby admits that he got angry and yelled at the students because “that was bullying 101.” But it was Irby — not the students — who got in trouble. A student filmed the incident on a phone, and Irby was suspended.
“Should I have raised my voice? In hindsight, no. That’s the improper way to react nowadays. But I’m sorry; it pushed a button,” he said, adding, “I’m just old school. What I consider firm is now considered bullying.”
As for the public, well, according to Irby, we have little respect for public school teachers, either. “There’s a lot of talk about vouchers, and parents are actively looking for ways to get their children out of public schools. I understand that. One hundred percent.
“But my problem with this is that we’re just not coming to the table and talking about the problems. We’re saying, ‘let’s encourage homeschool, let’s encourage charter schools, let’s encourage private school.’ I have a seventh grader. I wish I could do all those things. ...
“When people say, ‘The system is broken.’ Well, I agree. When they say, ‘There needs to be options for families.’ I agree. We should all say let’s do what’s best for kids. We should all be on that team.”
He knows all the outrage on social media about teachers “indoctrinating” students, especially with regard to gender ideology on students, and says he doesn’t deny that it happens on occasion, but doesn’t believe that this is widespread. “I just don’t see it,” he said. “If I was going to indoctrinate them into anything, I would indoctrinate them to sit down and be quiet.”
Irby said he’d been looking for a new job for a while, but as a music educator, the opportunities aren’t vast even though he has two master’s degrees and more than two decades of experience. When we spoke, he was about to start a new job in sales at a local car dealership.
As the daughter of a public school teacher, and a critic of the growing acceptance of profanity, I found Irby’s story compelling on several levels. But what was also interesting to me was what he said when I finally got around to asking about his political affiliation.
It’s Republicans who are usually scolded for being prudish about profanity and the loosening of “old school” standards.
Irby is a Democrat, living in a red state.
Let him serve as a reminder, then, that people on the “other” team can also be on your side. That even the best teachers can’t teach if students aren’t prepared to learn. And that no one — not children, not teachers, not society — is well served when parents consider discipline a relic of the past.
Meanwhile, there’s good news on the job front for Irby — he’s been contacted by several other school districts about openings they have. “The teacher shortage is real,” he said.
No wonder that.