Thursday, October 18, 2007

Blame the teacher

I got an email yesterday from one of our administrators, and after a tough day I was ready to blow a gasket. After a parent of one of our underachieving students stopped in to complain to the administrator, the email was sent to all of the girl's teachers. I don't blame the administrator for sharing his concern with the teachers involved, but I was furious at the parent for trying to blame us for the lousy job that he is doing as a parent and his daughter is doing as a student.

First of all, I always enjoy it when a parent has a complaint about a teacher, and rather than seeing the teacher, the parent goes straight to an administrator. Courageous! In this case the parent complained because of the lack of communication that he had been getting from those darned teachers. He was upset because his lovely daughter is failing four of her classes (that I know of), and he had only been notified of problems by two of us. He also complained because we hadn't been posting our schedules of assignments on the school's web page so he could keep up on what his daughter was supposed to be doing. The implication was that if only we would keep him informed he would make sure that his daughter was keeping up. BALDERDASH!

I happen to be one of the teachers who did contact this parent. I've sent home two progress reports in the first six weeks of school informing the parents that their daughter, despite having plenty of academic ability, was performing miserably. Our school's website has been an on and off proposition, so I don't use that, but I do have an American History email address group for parents of kids in my classes. Each week I send my group the schedule of assignments for the upcoming week. In the first progress report that I sent to Mr. Concerned Parent, I invited him to send me an email so I could add him to my group, and I let him know that this had made a big difference for a number of my students last year. You would think a parent who was so big on communication would jump at that opportunity, but I never heard from him. I also never heard from him after the second lack-of-progress report, and neither of the progress reports resulted in any change in their daughter's complete lack of effort.

Since I was one of the teachers who did contact this parent, I assume that he wasn't complaining about me, but I resent what this clown was trying to do. Because two of the teachers didn't contact him, his daughter's total lack of effort somehow becomes the teachers' fault. If for no other reason than to protect themselves, I think they should have contacted the guy, but if my contacting him made no difference whatsoever in his daughter's performance in my class, why would the other teachers contacting him have made any difference in theirs. For whatever reason, this guy has a daughter who just doesn't give a rip.

Any time I think about the amount of time I have to spend each weekend making sure parents of non-performing kids are notified, especially considering the meager response that I get for doing it, I get angry. The parents of this kind of student who respond or take any meaningful action are definitely a minority, but you can bet that if the teacher misses somebody--and that is so easy to do--that we will hear about it. At the end of our administrator's letter, he told us that the parent requested that we begin printing out progress reports each week and leaving them for him in the high school office. Oh goody! One more thing that I get to do!! Add that one to the list!

If you are wondering why it is easy to miss somebody, here's why. I have six different classes and about 150 kids. I send out progress reports to parents of any kid getting a low C- or worse at the end of the second and sixth weeks. Then, whenever a kid falls into failing territory after that, I send those parents deficiency slips. During the last three weeks of the marking periods, I also send out reports to any student who falls into C- or D territory. In addition to that, I have to send out groups of progress reports to three different special education teachers for the kids in their caseloads every week. Finally, I have to submit a list of failing kids to the office so they can be put on our scholastic ineligibility list for extra-curricular activities, and I know there will be hell to pay if I didn't inform the parents of every one of those kids that they were in failing territory.

I think informing parents as early as possible is a good idea, but this is something that has been completely turned around. Maybe I'm forgetting, but I don't remember warnings being given to students' parents when I was going to school. Report cards were just that: "report" cards. That's when teachers informed parents how their kids were doing, and if a student got an F, it was the student's fault. Parents wouldn't have dreamed of trying to pass the blame onto the teacher because they hadn't been warned. But now, that is exactly what happens. Contacting parents early used to be something extra that teachers did to be helpful, but now it's gotten to the point where some administrators say, "If you haven't warned the parent, you can't give an F to the student." It doesn't matter if the kid failed because he didn't bother to make up a test that he was conveniently absent for, and it doesn't matter if he failed the class because he went into the tank for the last two weeks of the marking period.

I am as conscientious as I can be in trying to keep parents informed when their kids aren't doing well, but I resent having to fear that I'll be the fall-guy if I miss somebody. I'm also embarrassed by the fact that some teachers feel like they've got to pass some kids who don't deserve it due to the fact that there are parents will try to crucify them because they "would have taken care of it if only they had known." And finally, I resent the amount of time I've got to spend worrying about those kinds of parents. The bottom line is this: if a student performs miserably in a class, whether or when the teacher gave a warning should be a minor concern. The student should fail and the student is the one who should be held responsible for that failure. And if parents want to find anyone else to blame, they should begin by looking in the mirror.


Blogger CrypticLife said...

Realistically, schools should organize the whole "contact the parent" thing better. Leaving it to individual teachers is asking for trouble. It should really be the centralized job of someone in administration.

Of course, I don't know how realistic that is. Maybe administration doesn't know how the kids are doing (they should, though, I think). Maybe they'll claim they don't have resources (though I think they should request additional resources anyway -- if they're turned down, they can legitimately say they tried). It seems, though, a central administrator would have a few advantages over an individual teacher calling. First, it wouldn't be five or six teachers calling the parent, which would be bound to put the parent in a pretty foul mood pretty quickly. Second, the administrator could have almost no emotional reaction to accusations of lying. Their responses could be perfectly scripted, and they'd have virtual constant experience dealing with the parents. Third, the parent couldn't falsely claim that it wasn't happening in the child's other classes.

Reading through your post, it seems like that's exactly what the administrator is trying to do. Is it really that the progress report is so onerous? Isn't it just your grade book anyway? It sounds to me like a good thing if he takes the parent contact largely off your hands.

However, I can definitely see how a parent would be upset at not being contacted at all. Punishing kids often isn't the right way to change their behavior, but it's especially bad if you get a report card and are trying to punish them for not doing homework two months ago.

10/19/2007 8:35 AM  
Blogger TT said...

I teach at a hybrid online/face to face school and all a parent needs to do to check their childs progress is log in to the computer - the computer their child is REQUIRED to have to attend our school. In spite of that, we still are required to call the parents of our homeroom students (40+ students per teacher) AND the students in our classes - I have 223 in my Social Studies class.

Our parents sign an academic contract that they will monitor their child's progress and make sure the child is actually logging in and trying to complete the assignments - but who do they blame when their child does not do this? The teachers. The great thing is, our computer system keeps a log of how many hours per class/day/week the student logs in and works in a class. It's highly amusing when we show a parent their child hasn't logged in for the last two weeks or is only putting in an hour a day (when they have oh, say, six classes).

But they still blame us. Not that it is a surprise.

10/19/2007 11:13 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife, I understand that SOME parents really do want to know if their kids fall off in school. I want to emphasize that I'm not criticizing our administrator for letting us know that he had a complaint. That's part of his job. I simply think that his parent was not being completely honest.

You are someone who is very concerned with psychological concepts. As TT points out, there are a lot fo people who are willing to blame teachers for kids' failures. I think we have made it much easier for kids to do failing work in school by spreading the blame for their failure. I also know that some teachers don't fail kids who should be failed because they haven't done a good enough job backing themselves up when the feces begins to fly because some kid has failed. It's a lot easier just to give him a D-. The problem is that there are too many kids for which a D- is good enough.

10/19/2007 5:57 PM  
Anonymous cranky said...

Lot of teachers do the D- thing--it's so common maybe I should label it "best practice" and starting running seminars on it.

10/19/2007 8:11 PM  
Anonymous Laura said...

I had NEVER seen so much of this syndrome until this year at my new school. I've had parents accuse me of not teaching, of not giving their kids a chance, of demanding more work than I had a right to as a lowly Spanish teacher.

I like the idea of an automated/scripted call-everyone approach. Then I could avoid the 20 minutes of niggling over the zillions of chances I offer and how parents never see their kids who are always "doing homework" until 10.

But as a student, I would have rather DIED than let my TEACHERS be the ones to tell my parents about my bad grades. And as a teacher? I can't say as I've bought into the efficacy of parent contact anyway. It's RARE to see an actual change.

10/20/2007 6:17 AM  
Anonymous cranky said...

I can't say as I've bought into the efficacy of parent contact anyway. It's RARE to see an actual change.

That's why when you have a kid who is having problems, or causing problems, you finally meet the parents, usually you quickly realize EXACTLY why they have those problems!

10/20/2007 10:07 AM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

In my opinion part of this problem is that teachers shouldn't be teaching six classes a day. Even if you are teaching the same subject, that is too much. When do you grade papers, prepare lessons, and meet with students? My guess is you rarely meet individually with students and less often with parents.

10/20/2007 3:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dennis, it is scary - you must be reading my mind again! STUDENTS, by the time they are in high school [at least], should have much of the responsibility for their grade. Absent poor teaching, the parents should stay out of it - give the kids a chance to learn how to be adults. As one of our counselors used to say when we were considering a new school rule, 'It is better to have kids make a mistake here, when there is a support system to help them learn from it, than wait until they are in college or otherwise out on their own.'

10/21/2007 10:24 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

I might be contradicting everyone here, including myself, but there are some parents who do turn their kids around when they find out they're not performing. One of the best teachers in our school agrees with Anonymous on this, though, that we shouldn't be babying kids like this when they're in high school. Also, the amount of time that I end up spending on this stuff to reach those few parents who actually do something is enormous. And finally, the result of all this is that it gives a lot of people one more technicality to complain about when a kid fails. "Why didn't that teacher contact me?!?!"

Elizabeth, I agree completely with you. Teaching six classes (and in my case, I have four different classes to prepare for) in a seven hour day makes it impossible to do all the things you really need to do--especially meeting one on one with students.

10/21/2007 6:16 PM  
Blogger mybellringers said...

I'm not surprised at all…same song, second verse. I am, however, surprised that somehow y'all weren't blamed for contributing to the student's overall low self-esteem.

10/24/2007 5:55 PM  
Anonymous Betty said...

In many cases parents are looking for anyone to blame except themselves. You are right that a lot of times nothing changes after the parents are notified about failing grades. I used to send all failing papers home with a "redo" written on them and gave extra points if they were returned corrected. I seldom received papers back. In my opinion, one of the biggest problems is that the kids know how easy it is to convince their parents to blame the teachers. Some administrators actually seem to encourage this behavior as well.

10/27/2007 11:06 AM  
Blogger Mr. McNamar said...

I will admit that I am not the greatest at communicating with parents when students are failing. It is certainly something I must improve on. However, here at my new school, I don't have a classroom. This results in not having a computer dedicated to me. And if I did, it wouldn't matter because we don't have a computerized gradebook to use or online grading as an option. Secondly, we don't have voicemail, so if I had a room and an actual phone, I couldn't leave a message asking them to call back at their convenience.
I need to get better at communicating, but I also would like to have the resources.

10/28/2007 10:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our public school system (in Georgia of all places!) recently initiated an online parent portal. It's fantastic. In effect, it is your student's entries in the teachers grade book, including daily attendance. I set down a rule for my 15 year old boy - a devoted skateboarder - All grades must be passing at all times or no skating. Well - I checked the other day - and he had a 68 in Spanish - so no skating. He is angry with me (which he will soon realize is anger at himself for not doing the work) but it's far better than me having to conference with teachers. I've never had a good experience with that. I find our public school teachers to be stressed, overworked and consequently very defensive - probably from dealing with so many parents such as you describe. Sadly, however, when someone nice walks in - we tend to get "walked over" by these teachers. Better to use the online system and keep it in the family! - Sign me scared to conference!

11/05/2007 6:56 AM  
Blogger Mamacita (Mamacita) said...

Six daily classes? That's digraceful.

So was teaching seven daily classes for 26 years, which is what we did at my former middle school.

When do we plan? It's hard when almost every planning period is taken up with subbing, meetings, and conferences.

When do we contact parents? On our own time. And, we did.

Did it help? Not usually. Most loser students have loser parents.

However, the few times it DID help made it worthwhile to do. And there are some loser kids with wonderful parents who are pulling their hair out and weeping into their pillows nightly trying to figure out what to do.

P.S. The seven daily classes (no study hall, either: solid academic classes, each with an average of 35 students) are even more outrageous when you know that no other building in the system required this; their teachers taught five classes, and in some cases, four and a couple of study halls. The union shrugged its shoulders and mumbled something about student population. . . . to which I say, Bah.

P.P.S. I agree with everything you've said.

11/30/2007 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I, too, teach six classes a day. I, too, have 150 students. I get to work at 6:45 and often don't leave until 6:00. While at work, I rarely get to eat my lunch. I am only afforded the luxury of using the restroom about once during school hours. I take home hours of paperwork. To contact parents, I send home my own progress report and make the students sign for them at least once a quarter. I then call only "F" students three weeks before the end of each quarter. With six classes, that's about 25 phone calls. This is all I can do. There isn't time for anything.

11/30/2007 7:11 PM  
Anonymous ilshaman said...

I was a instructor in the military, I trained people to work on the powerplant, rotors, and related systems of several different hellicopters. In two years I failed 1 student. Within two days of failing that student who commonly slept in class ignored assignments and was generally disgruntled. His commanding officer landed at our Air station the next day. He asked me why I sent his seaman back to the squadron without completing his training... I told him.. The Captain informed me my job was to train seaman, not to decide who gets trained. If I could not train the student then I was incompetant for duty as an instructor. For several days I was confused I had never thought as a instructor I was responsible for the problem students as well as everyone else. In our public school system I never hear of a teacher taking responsibility for their inability to reach that problem student. The problem is there parent.. or the curriculum.. or any host of excuses. After consideration I agreed with the Captain. If I could not teach, I should not be in that position. I adapted and found creative ways to educate that sailor so he could perform his duty. What happens at school these days is a constant shifting of responsibility for the child's education. The responsibility is everyones. The student.. the instructor..The parent all own responsibility in the academic success of our students. Wether they are military students or civilian. Own responsibility for our failures and adapt.

1/21/2008 12:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can relate to this letter very well. I work in an at-risk urban setting and have to deal with some of the most ridiculous parents who are always ready to blame the teacher for a student's shortcomings or failures. At our school, we are not allowed to have more than 11 percent of our students fail. If we do, there is a massive amount of paperwork and documentation that needs to be sumbitted and then teachers are put on a growth plan. I got a BA and an MA and am starting to regret that I got those degress in education. The sad thing is that I am a good teacher but the whole bureacracy of this mess makes me want to leave that much more.

2/03/2011 10:20 PM  

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