Daily Archives: June 9, 2006

It’s ALL About PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY

Oh, for CRYING OUT LOUD!

Bowyer teaches biology in high school, and has for the past eleven or so years. He’s a great teacher – I’ve seen him in action and it’s obvious that he loves what he does. Lately, though, things haven’t been so great for him, and that’s what I’m ranting about.

Over the past several years, teachers I know have been complaining about the increasing lack of student involvement. Kids are getting harder and harder to engage, they say, and they’re taking less and less personal responsibility for their own selves. Work – both quantity and quality – has been on a steady decline for the last five or six years – maybe longer, I’m told, and the administrations that my teacher friends work under have been less inclined to support teacher efforts to try to reverse this trend. Parents are more likely to blame the teachers for student failure than they are the students themselves. No Child Left Behind is just an abomination – the standards for achievement and improvement are not only unreasonable, but often patently irrational and everyone has been scrambling to “meet the standards” so that the money, such as it is, keeps coming.

Where does this leave the people actually DOING the work, the teachers and students? The learning – and working – environment has been consistently eroded in the name of “measurable progress.”

Such has been the case for Bowyer. His curriculum is RIGHT in line with the state standards. He challenges his students; he varies the work he expects kids to do (papers, labs, projects, etc.), he regularly assesses their knowledge and skills. He’s doing everything he’s supposed to be doing, according to the rules set down by the school board and the Department of Education. Let me say this again – he’s doing EVERYTHING HE’S SUPPOSED TO BE DOING. So what’s the problem?

His kids are failing. Not all of them, mind you, and not as many as were failing this time last year, but far more are failing than his administration would like to see (though how many failures are “acceptable” no one has quite articulated). As a result, he’s been “written up,” which, if I’m understanding this correctly, means that the process of official sanction has begun. Bowyer will get a mentor who will come into his classroom on regular observation visits; he’ll have to submit more documentation about exactly what he’s covering in his classes, what he expects the students to do and how he assesses that work; he’ll have to attend meetings where he talks about such things. He will be closely monitored and “guided” in the hopes that his failure rate will drop. This makes everyone but Bowyer feel better: the administration looks good because they’re taking action with what they see as an ineffective teacher, the students and the parents are happy because they have someone else to blame for the students’ lack of progress, and the school looks good because it’s being proactive in the face of NCLB – they’ll have documentation!!

Here’s the thing, though; no one in authority – and I mean NO ONE – has mentioned a damned word about the STUDENTS’ responsibility in Bowyer’s failure rate. Several of his students are failing not because they can’t understand the material or for some lack of teaching skill on Bowyer’s part, but because they don’t bother showing up for class. Or school, for that matter. Some kids are failing because they don’t do the work – they show up and participate in class discussions and they may even pass the tests, but they don’t do the homework or hand in completed labs – they’re just not doing a significant amount of the work – work that constitutes a large portion of their final grades.

Neither of these factors is Bowyer’s responsibility and there’s really very little that he can – or should – do to affect any change about them. We’re not talking about fourth-graders, here; we’re talking about high school-aged kids – fourteen to eighteen year olds who, by this point, should at least have an inkling about the concepts of personal responsibility and consequences. Bowyer is more than willing to work with the kids who are struggling but he’s not willing (and nor should he be, in my opinion) to chase down or hassle the kids who’ve decided they’re not going to participate in their own education. He shouldn’t have to deal with parents who come to him angry that “he’s failing my kid” (which I love, in a bitter and ironic sort of way. Teachers don’t GIVE grades, kids EARN them. Teachers don’t fail kids; kids fail themselves – but that’s another post). My point is that, in high school, we should be spending a significant amount of our time and effort preparing kids to make their way in the world. Bowyer’s trying to do that and teach biology at the same time and now he’s getting crap for that. I’ve gotta tell ya, this ain’t how to do it.

Look. It’s all very simple. Here is the work we’re doing in this class. You find out, in the first week of school, what this is going to be about. I give you a basic idea of what I’m going to expect – what we’re going to read, how often we’re going to write or test, how much this or that will be weighted in your final grade. You find out what you can expect from me and what I will and won’t do to see that you succeed. From there on out, it’s in your hands. It’s YOUR job to do the work – I’m not going to chase you down or remind you about due dates. You can do the work or not – that’s your decision – but understand that a failure to even attempt to do the work will result in your failing the course, and you forfeit your right to complain about that TWO WEEKS BEFORE SCHOOL ENDS. If you’re struggling, you need to come to me and tell me so and I will do everything – and I mean everything – in my power to get you upright again. If you can’t finish a paper by the due date, you need to come to me (and NOT the day before the thing is due, by the way) to let me know what the problem is and I assure you that, 99% of the time, we’ll adjust the date so you can do the work sufficiently. Get the big picture here? Whose responsibility is it? MY job is to present this material to you in a logical, ordered, varied and intersting way. MY job is to help you understand this material and teach you how to take it out into the world with you and make good use of it. YOUR job is to TAKE SOME RESPONSIBILITY for yourself and your learning. Show up to class. BRING A PENCIL, for crying out loud! Listen to me and to others and to yourself. Talk, think, take chances. DO THE WORK. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t blame me or anyone else when you choose not to talk or think or take chances or do the work. You have a responsibility to yourself, and it’s not my job, or your parents’ job, or the administration’s job to see to it that you carry that responsibility out.

I’m angered that Bowyer’s been put in this situation. It’s political and stupid and an utter waste of time and energy on everyone’s part. It makes me frightened to accept a job in education (and no, I haven’t heard anything back from LHS yet – I’ll tell you as soon as I do). I have no patience for this crap.

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