Disappointed in Teaching (V) – These guys are going to pay my Social Security?

I teach three classes of Algebra 1A – the kids who did not do well throughout middle school, but were pushed forward into a course beyond their level of incompetence. The middle schools did not hold these kids back because to do so would have damaged their self-esteem. Now, with their self-esteem intact, they are freshmen in high school and here they can and do fail.

When one teaches classes where the vast majority of students fail, if one is honest and conscientious, the first impulse may be to blame oneself for the results. Administrators will readily support you in that conclusion: you are just not teaching the “right way”.  Your pacing is not right, you are not checking for understanding enough, you are not making your lessons exciting enough, you are not using technology sufficiently. Administrators are nothing loath to reach conclusions why your teaching is below par and (with a smile) will say they are ready to help you.  This from people who have not been teaching in a classroom for a good number of years and who do not have the day-in-day-out interaction with your kids, the way you do.

I humbly acknowledge that I too have felt the pangs of doubt and guilt – so many F’s! So many parents calling! So many administrators visiting the classroom!  It must be me. Granted, math is one of the more challenging subjects, but still… it must be me.  Sure, most of the ones who are failing  spend their class time talking with their peers and do not do any work, but still…it must be me – at least in part.

One day, I began to wonder what other teachers who have my freshmen do. Are they better teachers and therefore do my kids earn better grades in their courses?  I decided to look at ALL the grades of my kids. I took one of my algebra classes as a sample and tabulated the kids’ grades for the last reporting period. I have 34 kids in that class and, between them, they have accumulated 65 F’s and 31 D’s in all the courses they are taking. That comes to an average of about 2 F’s and 1D per student! Only three of my students do not have either a D or an F. Most of the bad grades are in the core subjects, English, Math and Science, but when a kid has 5F’s and that includes PE, you begin to wonder where does all this come from?

Actually, it is very simple: these kids do not care about school- even the best teaching will not reach them. Some of them are honest enough to say it to your face in so many words: “I don’t care about school Mr. S.” School is to socialize, school is to find a boyfriend or girlfriend, to join a club or a team. Learning comes last and for some of my students, it does not even make the “top ten”.  I give them pep talks about what a hole they dig for themselves with these bad grades, how it may lead to not graduating or graduating late, but it does no good. I have a couple of TA’s who go to neighboring junior colleges and who tell them how hard it is to get from under the remedial program and start taking the courses that you need – no effect whatsoever. What, me worry?

Given that this year I have this population of students, I get dragged in the school’s intervention program. This means that at 7:30 in the morning we have meetings with some of these students, their parents, counselors and all the students’ teachers. We go around the room and each teacher says something about the behavior and academic progress (or lack thereof) of the student. The counselor takes it all down, tries to “engage” the student in a dialogue and then we, the teachers leave, and the counselor writes an action plan together with the parent and the student.

What strikes me about this process is how utterly futile it is.  (In private, the counselors acknowledge this). Like many procedures in education nowadays, these meetings are part of the school’s CYA policy – in case of legal action, the school can say that we have an intervention process in place and we implement it rigorously. Nobody seems to be interested in establishing and analyzing success metrics – does the process work? How do we measure success? For my part, I have very rarely seen a student behavior change following these meetings and this is also the conclusion of other teachers as well

The other theme that comes out from attending many of these meetings is the lack of authority many parents have over their children. These kids talk back to their parents, physically reject a parent’s arm around their shoulders and in general have a “there is nothing you can do to me” attitude. Many times parents try to be friends to their children and very often they will rather believe what their child tells them rather than the teacher.

So what happens to these kids after they fail 2 -3 courses in their freshman year? Many will go to summer school and the teachers in summer school seem to be easier on the kids than in the regular year. Some will get D’s and technically that is passing. Only the worst will go to a continuation school. Somehow, most of them will graduate. Schools are measured by their graduation rates, so we will push them out one way or another. After all, what happens to them after graduation is not our problem. So what if 40% of them have to take remedial math and/or English in junior college (our school’s numbers). So what if 25% of them do not graduate from college after six years? So what if these students have not learned the discipline of studying, and of performing a task well and in time? They are not in our school anymore.

I just hope these students can hold a job so that they can pay my Social Security.

Alfred E. Neuman





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