I’ve been thinking a lot lately about parental involvement in my students’ academic lives. Go get a cup of coffee; this might take a while…
The reality at CHS is that most of the parents – I can honestly say that damned near all of them – are pretty involved with their kids. They made the decision to pull their kids out of their schools and send them to us – parents who just go with the proverbial flow generally don’t tend to do the work involved with applications and interviews, so that their kids are at CHS at all indicates that there’s at least a base level of motivation on the parents’ part. I invited all of my students’ parents to join our classes’ websites, and several of them took me up on it (though I have no data on how many of them visit the sites; I need to figure out if that information is even available to me… that would be interesting to know). Every so often, I get emails from parents asking how things are going with their kid.
Such a thing happened the other day.
I’ve got this kid – we’ll call him Jeff – who JUST. DOESN’T. CARE. The boy doesn’t participate in class, he doesn’t answer questions asked directly of him, he doesn’t turn in homework (or, rather, when he does, he doesn’t turn in appropriate or adequate homework).
I’ve sent several emails to Jeff’s mother, trying to keep her informed of what’s going on with her son. When I met with her during the last round of parent-teacher conferences, she presented a pretty downtrodden aspect; it was pretty clear that she was feeling she’d exhausted all of her resources for getting Jeff to do what he very clearly doesn’t want to do, and she’d asked me if I’d keep her up to date on what’s supposed to be happening in her kid’s English class. My guess is that she’s hoping that if she’s aware of what he’s supposed to be doing, she’ll have a better chance of actually getting him to do it.
The other day, Mom sent me this:
Hi Mrs. Chili,
I just wanted to drop you a quick note to see how Jeff is doing in your English class.
Is there any work that is overdue, that he needs to complete and turn in?
Jeff informs me that if there is late work overdue past a certain time, you will not accept it.
To which I replied:
Dear Jeff’s Mom,
In fact, the deadline for overdue work has passed.
For the first half of the semester, I had what I called the “Pretty Pink Paper Policy” which gave students a second chance to do overdue work. On days that homework was due, the kids either handed me their work or a piece of pink paper with their name, the date, and the missing assignment written on it. At a later date, they could hand me the missing work and I would trade them the piece of pink paper.
I put that policy in place because I wanted to give the kids a good, long runway to get used to me, my teaching style, and the intellectual heavy lifting I was asking them to do. At the midpoint of the semester, though, I terminated the policy. My main reason for this is that CHS is a college preparatory school; college courses, as a rule, do not allow for late work. I also felt that half the semester gave the students plenty of time to get accustomed to the work I expect in class.
I made sure that the students were VERY aware that the policy was ending; I announced it in class, I posted it on the website (here, I gave her a link to the website), and I printed an announcement and contract for students to sign. I told them all that any work that they still had outstanding could be submitted all the way until we left for Thanksgiving break – from November 9th to to November 24th.
While I don’t have access to my grade book at home (it’s kept on the computer I leave at school), I am relatively certain that Jeff chose to not take advantage of the grace period for missing work; I don’t recall his giving me anything on the day the work was due. Further, the homework that Jeff turned in this afternoon was insufficient (here, I told her this story)
I cannot give credit for this; he makes no discernible effort to address the prompt and do the critical thinking and analysis I’m asking of him.
I have noticed that, since we’ve returned from break, Jeff has been a bit more willing to participate in class, though I still find him to be incredibly resistant to the work. He has to choose to do the thinking and engage in the work; unless and until he does, he will not meet the standards required to pass this course.
If I can offer you any further information, please don’t hesitate to ask.
I haven’t heard anything back from this mom, and I’m not sure that I want to.
I am very – VERY – conflicted about how I feel about parents getting all up in their kids’ stuff about their performance in school, especially when the kid in question is – like Jeff – an upperclassman. Hell, I’m still working out how I feel about what MY level of involvement in Punkin’ Pie’s schooling should be. I mean, I understand it’s my job to make sure she has a consistent schedule, that she has access to all the materials and resources she needs, and that I am available to her for whatever help she might require, but it’s not really my place to force her participation; I genuinely do think that the motivation for academic pursuits has to come from the individual. Will I remind my kid that she’s got to do her homework? Sure. Will I sit on her and make her do it? No, I won’t. Doing that would mean that I’M the one doing the work; she’d get little out of it but frustration and resentment.
We’ve become a society that is intolerably averse to failure. We’ve developed such a culture of success and concern for individual self-esteem that we’ve forgotten the whole ‘natural selection’ process. If a student chooses to not participate in his or her academic life, then s/he has that right. S/he also has the obligation to deal with whatever consequences might arise from his or her choices, however, and that’s the part that seems to be the sticking point.
If Punkin’ decides to not do her work – regardless of how smart and capable she may or may not be – Punkin’ gets to deal with the end result; the shame and embarrassment of school-mandated tutoring, and the risk of being kept back and having to repeat a grade. Will we work pretty hard at trying to convince her that it’s not in her best interests to tempt that fate? Absolutely, but the motivation to succeed has to come from her.
I understand Jeff’s mom’s stress; she, like all parents, wants what’s best for her kid. She understands, where perhaps Jeff does not, that he needs the skills we’re asking him to learn and practice, regardless of what he chooses to do after graduation (if, of course, he graduates). She understands, where perhaps Jeff does not, that his failure to engage in his education is going to impact the rest of his life – it will affect how people treat him, what opportunities he’ll be offered, and whether or not he gets to enjoy a life of his own choosing rather than being forced, by what he can’t do, into limited choices. I get the desperation that someone who knows better feels when they just can’t get through to someone who doesn’t get it.
At the same time, though, I really wish she wouldn’t send herself over the edge; what we’ve got here is a case of teaching a pig to sing (“it wastes your time and annoys the pig”). Unless and until Jeff figures out that it’s in his best interests to at least demonstrate a minimum of effort, he’s not going to do it. All his mother’s stress is going to do is wear her out and piss him off.