What’s a Parent’s Place?

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.

Thank you,
Jeff’s Mom

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.

Mrs. Chili

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.



Filed under compassion and cooperation, concerns, critical thinking, dumbassery, failure, frustrations, General Griping, I love my job, Learning, out in the real world, parental units, self-analysis, student chutzpah, Teaching, That's your EXCUSE?!, Yikes!, You're kidding...right?

11 responses to “What’s a Parent’s Place?

  1. Improbable Joe

    I’m not sure how “up in their kids’ stuff” this parent is, if the kid isn’t doing any of the work at all. The parent seems mildly interested in the kid passing, but not in the little doofus actually excelling or at least trying to.

  2. sphyrnatude

    I think the issue for me is that the parent has already failed (at least on this front). If the kid has been raised from day 1 with the knowledge that academic performance is critical to success (or not a requirement, depending on how you choose your semantics), this issue will rarely come up. The kid will know that slacking doesn’t cut it.
    Having said that, if the ‘rents are making a last-ditch effort to teach this lesson, I would do whatever I would do what I could to help them (within reason).
    I think it is unlikely that a kid who has managed to slack through school to the end of high school is likely to change well-formed and successful habits (successful because he has managed to get this far instead of being held back). ‘Course, said kid is heading down a short pier pretty fast….. Sometimes the kid has to go for a swim before they learn. Sometimes it takes a few dunks. sometimes they never learn (or simply drown).

    Don’t get me started on the problems our school have with promoting kids to the next grade without mastering the skills from the last grade…

    • To have gotten as far as he has, with this (lack of) work ethic, it seems pretty probable that Jeff had plenty of teachers who did let him turn in his work late, or gave him ‘extra-credit’ work to keep him moving. Seems to me, that we are really doing our students a disservice by continually stretching the due dates. Somewhere they will have to learn the lesson that when the boss says ‘Get the report to me on Friday’ that he means it. Better to learn this when you are 12 than when you are 24 and getting a completely different kind of pink slip!

      • Improbable Joe

        Yeah! Better to fail some tests and go to summer school when you’re 13 years old, and learn the lesson, rather than get through a couple of years of college and flunk out when teachers stop tolerating your crap, or get into the workplace and not be able to keep a job.

        Kids today think that “get me this by Friday” means “I’ll accept part of it on Friday, and you can do the rest whenever.”

      • Melissa

        Our district has eliminated summer school because it’s too expensive to run. In response my school has opted to heavily expand our computerized credit recovery program. Students who fail a quarter can do computerized ‘remediation’ to earn a passing grade of 70 for that quarter (only one), or they can earn credit for a semester/year long course if they passed with a 61-69.

        While this credit recovery program has done wonders for our ever-important graduation rate, some of us worry that it inspires some students to brush off failing grades with the idea that they can simply do credit recovery and get by — as if a computerized program could ever replace the experience of being taught by a real teacher and putting forth genuine effort.

  3. The sad thing about this is that students who are like this or those with parents who are too involved never learn to be independent. They go off to college only to struggle.

  4. JoAnne

    I think it is very appropriate that you chose the name Jeff….I have a relative named Jeff who approached schoolwork in the same fashion. He is now in his 30’s and has lost five jobs and is unemployed! Why did he lose all of those jobs? He does not listen and respond to his supervisors! I stress to my students how important it is to develop strong academic habits as it is the habit/behavior which will bring success!

  5. It's me

    I knew a student like Jeff. He was a senior whose grades were mostly “f’s” through the entire four years. The school kept promoting him. He’d tell us teachers that his dad had money, so he wasn’t worried. He’d be able to get into college because he aced the ACT (with a 24), so he wasn’t worried. He turned 18 in the fall and admin informed him that he would not graduate and suggested that he go get his GED. He got his GED with great difficulty. The last I heard, he was picking through reject letters from state and community colleges. Dumbass. And it seems that money bags dad told him he was on his own. Heh, heh…

    • Actually, we have a kid – not Jeff; a freshman, in fact – whose father is LOADED. He’s a pretty big donor to CHS, and I know it. The fact that Silver Spoon Boy was failing my class – in particularly spectacular fashion – worried me, so I went to my boss about it. I told her, on no uncertain terms, that I WOULD NOT promote a student who didn’t meet the minimum standards for success in my class. Whether she wanted to boot the kid from the school or have him repeat freshman English was HER issue, but I WOULD NOT (really – with the emphasis) pass the kid if he didn’t earn it, I do not care about Daddy’s money. SSB is still failing my class, though I’m now in touch with his “personal assistant” (I shit you not) and she’s totally cool; we’re in cahoots to make SSB do the work I’m asking him to do in ways that are appropriate and satisfactory. He may actually pull off a passing grade…

  6. Here’s an interesting (personal) story: I slept in class most days, and rarely did my work. Peers/teachers thought me as a deadbeat, lazy, or possibly other things. However, at night, I would study graphic design and educate myself about proper computer usage. I was held back a few grades, until I decided to acquire a GED (general education diploma?). After, I became the lead graphic designer at a local advertising agency at the age of 19. Then, I tried college only to discover the information was out of date and completely useless for someone whom already started his career in digital media. Thus, I continued teaching myself web design, audio editing, and video production. That being said and done, I now produce TV commercials, freelance web-design, and recently became a weekend DJ (mainly for fun, and some side-income); My work makes me an extremely busy guy with little time to sleep now.

    My thesis statement: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
    ― Potentially Albert Einstein

    Some kids could just be much, MUCH, smarter than you, your curriculum, and even their parents. Now, I’m not completely disapproving your “Jeff-theory” being how you describe him; I’m simply providing an alternative perspective to the situation. Honestly, there are some HORRID teachers out there, and hopefully you are a good one. Yet, I do disapprove your blog entry, as it does not gratify several specifications to be considered a grade A+ persuasive essay. Thus, you pose a question on your own competency as an english teacher. ESPECIALLY your fascism views on “the natural selection process”. Since, some of the worlds most successful people happened to be dropouts ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_college_dropout_billionaires ) … Whilst a good number or college graduates are in debt working jobs they could’ve started after high school ( http://chronicle.com/article/Millions-of-Graduates-Hold/136879/ ).

    -No offense intended, of course; Hope you enjoy finishing your last sip of coffee.

  7. Marc

    In general the the average parent/student does not care what is learned in school or if it s learned at all. They are more interested in getting a passing grade. This is true from elementary school through college. I call it the “Inspection Sticker Analogy.” Most people don’t care if something is wrong with their cars as long as the problem is not life threatening, and as long as the mechanic puts a sticker on it. We are treating education that way today. The majority of people don’t really care if their students learn anything as long as they get the sticker at the end of the course and the big sticker at the end of high school/college. If the mechanic DOSEN’T put a sticker on the car we rant and rave, whine and complain, but in the end WE GET IT FIXED and they don’t blame the mechanic or the inspection test. People get upset if students do poorly and don’t get the sticker – it must be due to a bad teacher, a poorly designed test, discrimination, etc. When a student fails they blame the teacher, “You failed me.” My reply, “NO, YOU failed you. I just assessed the test.” Just like the mechanic, I am here to help, advise, instruct, and work, but in the end it is the student’s responsibility to LEARN and prove that they have done so.

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