Disappointed in Teaching (IV) – Administrators and Lake Woebegone

During the last semester and continuing this one, I am teaching the only sections of the lowest Algebra course we offer. It is a course for those who did not make it through Pre-Algebra and Algebra 1 in middle school and took General Math there – or, as both students and teachers call it, “Math for Dummies”. These students for the most part did not do well in General Math either and their state scores are “Far Below Basic” – the lowest category there is.

Unsurprisingly I have problems with these students, but the problems have nothing to do with math skills or their lack thereof. They have to do with discipline, a general lack of interest in school and the attitude that the primary function of school is to socialize.

As a result of the discipline problems, I have had to send a number of perpetual recidivists to “in-school”, a room where these students are sent outside of class and where they (hopefully) do their work without disrupting their colleagues. Calling security to escort these students to in- school requires that a teacher fill out a form detailing the reasons for sending the student out. This form eventually lands on the desk of the Assistant Principal in charge of discipline – let’s call him/her the AP-D.

Recently the AP-D called me in and told me that I am sending too many students to in-school.  According to the AP-D, “we want all our students to be successful, and we will support you in maintaining discipline in the classroom, but you are sending too many students to in-school and thus depriving them of an hour of instruction”.

I have often wondered what planet do administrators come from. Do they really believe in Lake Woebegone where all children are above average? (Courtesy of Garrison Keillor). Mind you, the students that I send out are often suspended for egregious things they have done in other classes – so it is not that administrators question the fact that these students are disruptive. What is it then that makes them upset when I send out 4 or 5 students? Are they upset, because pretty much every day one or two students from my three sections get sent out? Do they think that I lack in class management skills.

Probably not the latter, because in the last 10 years I have not had this problem despite teaching other low level classes. As I said, the students I send out are often suspended (a more serious disciplinary action than in-school) for other incidents, in other classes. Basically, the administrators know that these students are a problem and that the problem has nothing to do with math or one particular teacher (me). What is it then

My theory is that there are perhaps three reasons at work here.  The first, is a feeling (perhaps subconscious) of failure. Certainly sending these students out – day in, day out – is a sign of failure, the failure of the slogan that all students are successful. Regardless of the fact that this is statistical nonsense, these administrators must believe it if they are upset that it ain’t so.

Perhaps this sense of failure is compounded by the fact that administrators themselves do not have the tools to change the behavior of these students. After all, for almost all my recidivists, we have had meetings with counselors, meetings with parents, conferences with other teachers and the administrators themselves – all that the book say we should do –and the results are nil; these students’ behavior is not changing. Therefore, a feeling (again perhaps subconscious) of powerlessness may also be a reason at work here. Do they want ME to accept that? Are they upset because I don’t take any c..p from these students and I am too “strict”?  Are they upset, because I don’t understand that these are freshmen, in the process of growing up? (Of course the logical answer would be – when can we expect them to grow up? (I believe the Romans declared maturity at 14)

The other potential reason is that somehow the numbers of students sent in for disciplinary action will eventually percolate to the district-superintendent level and then, perhaps indirectly, the competence of the high school administrators will be put into question.

As for me, the solution is pretty clear: tracking. It is obvious that we are dealing with a subset of students who are not ready for high school – either academically or emotionally. Unfortunately, this lack of readiness is expressed by disruptive behavior in class and therefore these disruptive students should be separated from the rest.

I actually offered this suggestion at a meeting I had with my administrators – I said pit the bad all in one section and I will be teaching both the sections of “want to learn” and the section of “losers”. I said that by sending the bad students out, they may lose an hour of instruction, but that I save at least three hours in teaching the three students that do want to learn, but are affected by the bad apples.  I was told no – creating a section like that would mean that all the teachers in other subjects taken by freshmen.

Well, I still send them out, I still refuse to take any c..p, and the administrators are still unhappy with me.



2 responses to “Disappointed in Teaching (IV) – Administrators and Lake Woebegone

  1. If you send out students, it is always your fault. It is never the kid’s fault. Besides, why can’t you just engage these students? If you were creating “engaging” lessons, these kids would not misbehave. You should be put on an improvement plan, so you can put binders and binders together of wonderful lessons that will enthrall your students. If you don’t believe me, ask your students. They will tell you that teachers are boring and that we don’t do anything to interest them. What do we adults know? It’s amazing that we even graduated from high school (for me in the early 80s) because school was so shockingly, well, um, “school” for lack of a better word. How did we manage to learn without creating disruptions when our teachers put those old textbooks in front of us, made us memorize pages and pages of notes and gave us quizzes in their own handwriting? How could they teach us anything without LCD projectors, smartboards and Youtube? Yet we learned, didn’t we? And we came to school and did our work. We didn’t “act out.” We learned when our English teacher smacked our heads with rulers for not answering correctly. We wrote tons of essays because we wanted to graduate and do something important. We filled the blackboards with equations and colored map after map of Africa. We looked at onion skins under microscopes. And school was just school. We knew we had to do it and we were not to complain because our parents weren’t going to listen to us gripe. Today, our students control the classroom. Teachers are supposed to be “guides.” The kids run the show. They demand a better “product” from teachers: entertainment. And if you don’t let them have it, well, I guess you’d better get used to sending them to the office.

  2. As much as I hate comments that start with “When I was in school…” or “In my time…”, the truth is that I have a very clear recollection of my years in high school. No doubt, this is in large part because high school was a new experience for me as a 15 year old new immigrant in the United States. We did NOT control the classroom, we knew that good grades and good scores on the SAT and passing the Regents exam (NY) were the passport to college and we knew that we had to earn those good grades and scores by studying.
    On the other side of the ledger we only had 4 TV channels, our phones were neither smart nor mobile and text was what you studied. The world was hierarchical, the good guys and the bad guys clearly delineated. My generation destroyed all that in the 60s and I am not convinced that what we created is much better (if at all) than what we destroyed.

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