I didn’t go into teaching to sabotage or attack students. In fact, it hurts like the dickens when you suggest I haven’t done a good job. When left unsupervised, about 1/4 of my brain obsessively catalogues my shortcomings. I know my imperfections well.
It doesn’t help that our culture has put more and more of the responsibility on teachers, less and less on students and parents. I kind of get off on everyone thinking I’m so powerful, but let’s face it: I can’t make a parent pay attention to a kid’s grades. I can’t make a kid work. I’m a stubborn, insistent motherfucker of a teacher, but I have my limits.
Ninety-five percent of the parents I’ve dealt with are supportive and respectful. Five percent ignore their child’s schoolwork and academic progress, and then, at some point, abruptly demand to know why I didn’t alert them to it. It takes every ounce of my self-control to not say, “I have a hundred kids. How many do you have?”
Infuriated, I start mentally listing my responsibilities (just skip to the end of this when you get bored): supervise 100 kids, monitor their academic and emotional and physical health, plan three sets of activities for the three classes I teach, five days a week, constantly revising them to fit the particular group of students, time of year, day of the week, their other courses, current events, and mood in the building, check on student work while they’re working, keep everyone engaged all hour in productive work, vary social and individual and visual and kinesthetic and oral activities, balance writing and reading, create and grade homework assignments that are meaningful practice, choose literature samples that are compelling and both connect and challenge students, choose grammar exercises and explanations that are accessible and clear, and most helpful to the particular writing problems of that group, tutor students after school, offer extra help to the weak and extra challenges to the strong, clean my classroom, monitor the halls, sign demerit cards for uniform infractions, language, and lateness, meet with the disciplinarian about serious discipline issues, tweak assignments and tests for students with IEPs, meet with my team of teachers to discuss discipline, curriculum, scheduling, and education theory, make sure everyone gets lunch and snacks, refer the suicidal, pregnant, and self-destructive to the social worker, alert student to changes in the schedule or upcoming events, encourage them to monitor their own progress and reflect on their work, encourage age-appropriate developments toward abstract thinking and reasoning, give mints to the sleepy, comfort the sick, encourage the English department and protect them as much as possible so they can do meaningful work, read widely to stay abreast of educational research and current events and literature, and write frequently and seriously so that I can be an authentic writing teacher, offering advice that reflects how people, in all their various approaches, actually write. Also I occasionally hold poetry readings.
Here’s what I want our parents to be responsible for: know what your kid’s grade is, and let someone at school know if you want to talk to us about that grade. Here’s what I want the students responsible for: asking for help when they need it, pointing out my mistakes, and accepting a grade based on what their work (or lack of it).
Through the wonders of the internet, parents can look at student grades any old time they want to. Before we had that system set up, I sent paper copies of grades home every week. Still, in meetings, parents would complain that they were in the dark. (My students are older– as I like to remind them, old enough to drive a car. I think if you’re old enough to drive a car, you must old enough to take some responsibility for yourself. At least the state of Missouri thinks so.)
Often, they ask me to call them when their student has grade problems. I do not have time to consider all 100 grades every day or every week or every month, and I don’t have time to ponder if you think the grade is appropriate and need a phone call. (Parents also, of course, receive grades mailed home eight times a year, as long as we have an up-to-date address.)
Let me say again: 95% of our parents come in for meetings and tell the kid, “You better listen to your teachers and straighten up.” I love that. I especially love the ones who are frustrated or depressed or anxious, which is most of them.
The problem with putting more responsibility on teachers is that it cripples students. If you work with students in poverty, encouraging a sense of helplessness and a lack of personal responsibility is the best way to keep them poor. It’s hard for a school that serves such a population to make any demands on parents or students. We know how much they are struggling with the basics. But responsibility, even a little bit, is empowering. We flatter ourselves when we say they have to rely on us, that schools have to bear the burden alone. We don’t, and we shouldn’t. It’s not helpful.