Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Who is responsible?

I know there is a thin line between stating reality and making excuses, but there is a line. I don't want to dismiss problems as being unsolvable, but I think there is room for calling things as they are and not sitting in an endless cloud of idealism where no true changes are made.

I have sat through countless seminars and meetings in my 15 years as a teacher where the presenter insists that we can have across the board success with students. If curriculum is done right, if the instruction is delivered properly, if the environment is correct, etc... then EVERY child will succeed.

Do you notice anything missing in the equation?

The child's responsibility.

However, if you say that, you will be accused of making excuses. After all, if the child is unmotivated, then it is the teacher's job to motivate the student. As far as these theorists are concerned, the child plays no role in his or her outcome.

From personal experience, I reject this premise. I was the classic trouble maker as a boy. I never got anything above a C prior to 10th grade. School was at the bottom of a short list of meaningless priorities. Looking back, I recognize that many of my teachers did all that they could. They employed the right strategies, they cared, they intervened... yada, yada, yada. I simply didn't want to do it. Period. End of story.

They were powerless.

In the summer prior to my 10th grade year, that all changed. Perhaps someday on this blog I will write out my testimony. Suffice to say, I saw de' light.

I came back the first quarter of my 10th grade year and nailed 4 A's and two B's. My teachers and principal were shocked, but they had nothing to do with my turnaround. I pulled those grades because I wanted to. Period. End of story.

I believe I must do ALL that I can to help my students, but they must put forth effort. Their will affects their destiny. Like the ghosts and the Bright Ones in Lewis's The Great Divorce, the student can put nearly all of their weight on me but they must still walk.

If we take all responsibility in the equation away from the students, should we then be surprised if they approach life irresponsibly?


jledmiston said...

So what if the student is trying to be very responsible, but the teacher has already decided he/she is not?

Had a meeting with a teacher yesterday (along with guidance counselor) b/c our son's idea of creativity is not the same as the teacher's. She doesn't hear him. We saw it happen yesterday. She has already pegged him as a certain kind of kid. And now that's who he is and nothing's going to change that . . . except a crushing of his spirit. (He's 17 by the way.)

We've always been big teacher supporters. But what do you do if the teacher pulls a power move and decides that your child is ____(fill in the blank here with whatever: irresponsible, difficult, etc.)

Andrew said...

Not knowing you, your son, or the teacher, it is hard for me to comment. The extremes of teacher and parent/child responsibility spring to mind, so I will share those.

I had a teaching partner once who, although a good teacher, could not relate to students who functioned outside the box (this is 5th grade btw). She had a student whose writing was almost illegible. She would not accept any of his writing. Though it was some of the best content I have ever seen from a boy his age, she continually failed him. He was, as you say, being crushed.

I don't do this often, but I recommended he be moved to my room. After some struggle, we made it happen, and the student flourished. In fact, I had his brothers in the ensuing years and theirs was one of my favorite families.

On the flipside there was one boy who had by Christmas missed 22 days of school and rarely turned in any work. I thought the student was creative and I liked him, but he definitely needed to be pushed. Mom was angry that I called her into a conference to talk about her son. It is hard talking to a parent when their walls are up and is a word away from snapping. When I wanted to talk about the absences, she exploded. She leaped from her chair and pointed a finger at me.
"[He] never had any of these problems prior to YOU!" With that, she stormed from the room.

I took a peek at his file. The 30 days he was at our school the previous year he had missed 9 days. In 3rd grade, at a previous school, he had missed 40 days. I had no records beyond that.

Was the mother consciously lying? I don't think so. I think she was overwhelmed and saw no solutions. So it became easier to find the problem in someone else. She was probably spinning many plates in her life and could not cope with the idea of taking on another responsibility.

Our personal biases are so strong. Notice in each story I present myself in the right. I would probably have to think VERY hard to come up with a story where I blew it. When it comes to my children, my biases are multiplied all the more.

Whether or not your biases are blinding you personally is something I could never deduce, so I can only offer advice based on the first scenario.

If there is any possibility of shifting to another class, do so. Schools don't like to advertise it, but if there is a personality conflict sometimes moves can be made.

IF not, you have to have continual discussions about surviving the class. Every year I have students who have pull-outs for gifted classes or remedial classes. I always have some students who BEG me to get them "out of that class" because they don't like the teacher. At that point, I have to remind them that in middle school they will have multiple teachers and there will probably be at least one they will not click with. They will have this challenge the rest of their school career, then in college, and later in the workplace. It is not fun, not easy, but almost guaranteed. I do not get to have this conversation with my students only once, but this has to be renegotiated at least once a week. Emphasize and remind your son of all the classes in which he is doing well.

Also, are there a few things this teacher emphasizes that your son could follow through on? I would avoid berating this teacher in front of your son. Once that happens, the student not only feels empowered to dismiss the teacher, it also tends to give the student parental permission to misbehave (after all, my mom doesn’t like you anyway). Learning to be civil, even to someone you feel may not deserve it, is an important life skill.

Good luck to you. I know how hard it is. Watching our children go through a rough spot can be so difficult.

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