I ONCE had a student at Triton High in South Jersey come into class the first week of school and tell me he had no interest in doing anything but the legally required minimum.

He was counting the days until he could drop out. Proudly defiant, he told me and the school administration that he had "a constitutional right to fail."

In the faculty lounge, that kid lost the support of the teachers because he went out of his way to disrespect the very purpose of school and the importance of education.

This is not new. Teachers in every school across the country are faced with the challenge of trying to reach kids who clearly don't want to be in the classroom.

But now the reverse is happening: the educational equivalent of a work slowdown in the classroom. It's playing out in the Neshaminy School District. Unfortunately, these hardball tactics are tarnishing the image of the profession. Teachers unions are starting to lose critical battles in the court of public opinion.

The Neshaminy Teachers Union has instituted a "work to contract" rule in response to a contract impasse with the school board. This means the teachers will only do what is spelled out in the contract. Nothing more.

Over the last school year, they have taken down bulletin board decorations and refused to write college recommendations for seniors. They capped their strategy this year by boycotting the high school graduation last week.

If you're trying to win the hearts and minds of local taxpayers, why such harsh tactics? For starters, you're insulting the families of nearly 10,000 students who are the key jurors in the court of public opinion.

Their taxes pay for your salaries and benefits. When it comes time for the budget vote, why would you want parents going into the voting booth with a chip on their shoulder?

Graduation is an emotional rite of passage, and the boycott left a real bitter taste in the mouths of students and their families. One student told Fox 29 in reference to the boycott that "It's kind of hurtful. . . I want them to see how I've grown throughout the years."

I know many teachers would be moved by this, and I'm sure there were many in Neshaminy who wanted to be there. Unfortunately, labor activists love this kind of thing and see inflicting pain and pettiness as the way to get what they want.

In fact, a dad of a student in a Neshaminy middle school recently called me to tell me his daughter's teacher went into the closet to get out a globe for use in a lesson. The globe had been mothballed due to the "work to contract" rules and the teacher told the class to make sure they didn't tell anyone he was using it.

In an added touch, the dad told me, the younger kids were given the excuse that class decorations were taken down to make way for painters. How would anyone look at these actions and say these are the actions of independent professionals?

I'm not saying that teachers should not have representation. During my teaching career, I benefitted from it. But we're now living in a very different world that includes a recession and runaway health-care and benefit costs. Perhaps union leadership should consider a bargaining strategy appropriate to the current economic climate?

With many people out of work and struggling to make ends meet, there is less and less sympathy for any profession complaining about a 2 or 3 percent salary increase and the "insult" of being asked to pay a portion of their Rolls-Royce health insurance. Any high-school math or economics teacher can probably explain the financial realities of this. Maybe if the economy gets better, they can then shoot for a better contract.

These hardball tactics and harsh rhetoric are hijacking the real value of teachers, and causing great damage to the image of the teaching profession.

TEACHERS are role models in their schools and communities. But using these tactics in situations that involve kids can't be defended, and it tarnishes the image of the many teachers who find it goes against their guiding principles.

I know the predictable response. Teachers won't be paid or treated well if they don't see themselves as a union that can bring a district to its knees if they don't get what they want. But why would parents and taxpayers be inclined to tell their school board that teachers doing the minimum in a "work to contract" move deserve more?

Teacher-turned-talk-show-host Dom Giordano is heard on WPHT/1210 AM. Contact him at askdomg@aol.com.