American Culture

Notes from the trenches: Education and the American parent

By Ann Ivins

An Open Letter to the Concerned Parent with Whom I Recently Had a Phone Conference

Dear Ms. Three Surnames Down the Marital Road from Your Child’s Last Name,

Tonight, after downing two Cosmopolitans, I feel that it’s time to abandon the pat answers and glib jargon of our earlier conversation. We are two adults who share responsibility for the growth and development of a human soul. Surely we can come to a meeting of minds and arrive at a plan of action which may give fifteen-year-old R_____ a better chance, both in school and in life. Here, then, are my honest answers to the pressing questions you posed.

“Why is my son failing your class?”

On the surface, the problem seems to be how he spends his time while in the classroom: attempting to sprawl on the floor; pratfalling out of desks; tapping his pencil, his foot, and his head on any available surface; whining audibly about his dislike of (fill in the blank); poking, grabbing, and needling any classmate who inadvertently wanders within his reach; asking to go to the bathroom; and announcing that he is about to urinate on the floor. If we look more closely, however, it becomes apparent that he is deeply angry with you and his third (or is it fourth?) “stepfather,” whose “home business” apparently involves “clients” coming and going at all hours, and that much of his behavior is either a cry for help or a preliminary to stabbing both of you in your sleep.

“But he’s so smart. Why won’t he do anything?”

The brain, like muscle, can atrophy through disuse. He is so accustomed to avoiding intellectual effort as a form of rebellion that he is rapidly losing the developmental progress he has made. The methamphetamine you ingested during pregnancy and, by the smell of his clothing, the atmosphere of marijuana smoke which pervades your lovely home may also have something to do with it.

“You know he’s got ADHD, right? Are you modifying for him?”

Yes, the inch-high stack of paperwork on R________ makes it abundantly clear that, although no actual neurological tests have confirmed the diagnosis, the hack therapist your insurance will pay for has diagnosed him as ADHD. And frankly, no, I haven’t made any special modifications for him, because regular freshman English is a no-brainer to begin with. He could excrete something from the lower end of his digestive tract in his sleep, smear it on a paper bag, and get credit for it. If you sign it, I’ll even count it twice.

“Can you hold on a minute?”

Oh, sure. Hey, is that Maury I hear? Lucky for both of us I caught you during a commercial.

“Okay, I’m back. So is there any makeup work he can

Can you rewind the last fifteen years of his life? Ah. Then no.

“So what CAN he do?”

Well, he could have a sudden epiphany, realize that his future is in his own hands, and turn his life around in spite of you. He could straggle through the public school system until he turns sixteen, at which time you could, in a drug-induced fit of maudlin regret, sign his school release papers, absolve yourself of legal responsibility, and wait for him to run away.

Or he could stab both of you in your sleep.

Good luck.


Your Son’s Ninth Grade English Teacher

Categories: American Culture

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38 replies »

  1. But you don’t understand…it’s not my fault. It’s (Choose one):

    * The Government
    * Television
    * ADHD or some yet undiagnosed problem
    * His biological father
    * His step-father(s)
    * Video Games
    * YOU

    So you see, I can’t be held responsible if my son is an ass.

  2. Sam,

    If I actually said something even remotely like that to a parent at a face-to-face conference, probably after months of listening to said parent bluster, bully, and evade responsibility, here’s what would happen. He would attempt to reach over the conference table and punch me, at which point an assistant principal would tackle him and another teacher would call the campus police. Then he would be issued a restraining order barring him from campus without an escort. The AP would describe the experience as “surreal” and call me “BB” for the next three years. Later that year, the parent would disappear from his son’s life completely.

    But that was only once.

    I’ve got temerity out the yin-yang; I just don’t want to make any child’s life worse than it already is.

  3. Actually, this is a better answer than I was expecting. I figured the only variables in the equation would be how long it would be before they fired you.

    So oddly, this is kinda good news.

  4. It is, really. But I had an exceptionally supportive group of administrators and a prior reputation for rare and unpredictable outbursts of truth-telling… my version of the truth, anyway.

  5. Ah. Yes. I have this bad habit for being honest, too. The funny thing is that in the corporate world (and the university environment, as well) they’ll pretend that this is appreciated. They’ll make a show of how much they value that clear-minded willingness to speak truth.

    They lie, of course.

    In any case, I’ve never kidded myself that I’d last until lunch of my first day in a public high school. You have my admiration. And sympathy.

  6. I can’t wait for Euphrosyne’s answer here, histrionic, but as a guy’s who’s spent a lot of time teaching college students over the past 15-20 years, let me submit my own little friend-of-the-court brief.

    Because if you held students accountable for the level of work they ought to be able to do, you’d wind up failing a vast majority of the class. In my former position as a tenure-track Associate Prof at a northeastern private university that most people have heard of, I can say without question that if I had held my freshmen to same standards I was held to as a freshman in 1979-1980, not more than 25% would have passed. I had a couple students, maybe, who were worthy of an A by that standard, and another who’d probably earn a B.

    You may have heard the adage that “you play the hand you’re dealt.” Few people in American grok the dark truth of that saying better than a teacher.

  7. Damn. Must be dem “community standards” Ah’ve heard so much about on my own recent post. Girl, you keep up dem “elitist” attitudes of yers you’ll likely get fired and not elected to school board …

  8. My mom was a teacher in the 60’s and 70’s and I helped her grade papers and tutor the less gifted math students in her class. I heard all the same excuses as above back them from my fellow classmates (sans the electronic toys). I let them have it right between the eyes with the same logic my mom used with me. I told them YOU are the one responsible for what goes on the paper, not your mom not your dad not the teacher… YOU. If you don’t want to do the work and get into college, fine get a job flipping burgers and move out of the way for someone who does want to learn. I said the same thing to my daughter when she started to slack off a bit in high school. My husband had the same speech only he was offered trade school or the army (during Viet Nam) by his dad.
    It all boils down to being honest with the little brats and setting them straight. You cannot talk to their parental units if those units are not into school. If you can’t get through to the kid, you won’t get through to his or her parents.

  9. Hey. I had to flip burgers WHILE in college. 🙂 For five years or so. Don’t be knockin’ the burger flippin’ now.

  10. I’m not knocking those who do honest work. I’m knocking those who want to make sure that as many people as possible are unqualified for anything more. Ideally, people land in service sector jobs because they like them and find fulfillment there – not because they have no other alternatives in life.

  11. Michael, it’s a difference to do it while going to college (hell, college is expensive – I had two jobs); however, it’s another thing to do it b/c you can’t do anything else.

    I wish I could say this. Life would be much easier.

  12. Hahaha. I know. I was just yankin’ yer chains. 🙂 I actually flunked out of school for a year. Flippin’ burgers was plenty enough to get motivated to get back into school.

    Of course, now that NASA has decided that biology isn’t important, my aero and bio background pretty much means that all I AM qualified for nowadays is flippin’ burgers. Hehe.

  13. Histrionic,

    Two possible answers:

    1. Because I am a shitty teacher.

    2. Because I am twisting myself into Gordian knots attempting to establish any kind of connection with a wildly disparate group of students, many of whom have never cracked a book in their entire lives… and have already made it through nine years of public education. To this end, my standards are, frankly, variable (and mandated as such in many cases): adjusted for differing ability levels and different assignments. If someone of your intelligence and perception were in my class, I would expect sterling writing, careful reading, and a thorough understanding of concepts such as nuance, hyperbole and irony. In young R’s case, excrement on a piece of paper would have demonstrated more planning, cooperation and initiative than he had shown in years, and I would have considered it a victory.

  14. I teach freshmen history at the college level, and I can tell you, it’s not much better. My first semester teaching I made the “mistake” of trying to hold them to some sort of standard. The average on the first test was an F, students complained to the department, and I got in trouble for being a bad teacher. As a teaching assistant I am at the bottom of the food-chain and had to cave in and start giving multiple-choice tests. They can barely handle that.

  15. Thanks for the flashback, TeachingAsst. I used to fantasize about handing out the grades that people earned, but I never mustered the courage to actually try it.

  16. If I was that honest to a parent here in Florida I would find myself flying a plane load of dog***t out of Hong Kong!!! (Top Gun reference)

  17. That must have felt good. I knew in high school that I didn’t have what it would take to teach high school.

    On grade inflation, I’m old enough to remember when my state college attempted to hold to the normal curve and actually achieved about a 2.1 average on the Freshman class. I believe it was considered humane all around to let the incoming student know whether college was a good match.

  18. I too teach HS freshman English, and I hold my students to a firm standard. I don’t believe my class is nearly as challenging as it should be to earn the moniker “college-prep”, yet over 50% of each class has a D or lower. In one class, in fact, 94% of the class is failing, something which earned me a trip to the principal’s office last week. ME. It earned ME a trip to the principal’s office.

    Fortunately, I knew why I was being called in, and I went in armed with copious amounts of data. I stole the idea from this post by the most awesome 3 Standard Deviations.

    After explaining my grades and statistics, I explained everything I was doing to help students meet the standards, including my copious amounts of extra credit (which most of my students elect not to do) and my liberal test make-up policy (which most of my students choose not to avail themselves of.)

    Fortunately, I didn’t get in more hot water, and fortunately, I have tenure. But it steams me that these kids will go take summer school and snake by, and teachers will continue to lower their standards. I refuse to lower mine–they’ve gone low enough already.

  19. I kept being offered those college-prep courses; I decided I would rather deal with the rabble than the so-called elite… and it was entirely selfish. “Advanced” kids who can’t or won’t use a dictionary, revise their work, accept their need for remediation – cripes. Give me the ones who don’t think they know it all.

    If enough teachers refuse to lower their standards, perhaps the standards will become, well, standard again. Even in a non-tenure state, I have yet to hear a story about a teacher actually fired for failure rates. They must be out there – or are they?

    The impetus will not come from the public or from the school boards… it’s up to us. The only way to beat the “raise your standards but don’t fail anyone” mandate is to refuse to accept it.

  20. I keep being puzzled by this claim of slipping standards. I must have been a really inadequate student at High School! I am continually amazed a the quality of work the bulk of my High School students produce. Of course there are the students of the quality described above and they make lovely dinner party conversation but they are hardly the norm. The means students have to gather and process information now is so beyond what we had available to us and they use it so well. Of course their handwritten work is a little sloppy. Yet this is because they have been trained to word process with all the editing processes that that implies. That is a problem of assessment not keeping up with technology and consequent compositional practices rather than the kids themselves.
    One hears of people complaining of student who would fail the tests given to students of one room schools in the old west. That is odd as well. The tests given in the old west matched the teaching and needs of the time. That is very different to now. Who cares if you can diagram a sentence or do long division. If you can write a sentence with a word processor and use a calculator it becomes a moot point. Students today are far more critical of their sources. They are sophisticated techniques for critically assessing a range of media. Their literacy is so much more varied and complex than ours.
    Indeed I believe there was recently a scandal at Harvard that too many students were getting A’s. However, it was pointed out that Harvard is so prestigious that they only accept students now fully capable of getting A’s. So then why shouldn’t they all get A’s.
    Ultimately people confuse the purpose of grading. If it is to rank and compare students, then few people should get an A. If its purpose is to judge work, if the teaching is good, then everyone should get an A.
    Ultimately, I feel the substandard work is being treated as normal rather than unusual. We as teachers need to stop being drama queens, which is of course the temptation after a long day, and be Pollyanna instead. I don’t think standards have slipped, they have evolved and changed.

  21. Murray:

    I need to know more than you tell me in order to parse what you’re saying. For starters, where are you? What you describe is not, by ANY stretch, the norm, so I wonder if you’re in a really elite area or a an advanced tracking school of some sort.

    In any case, word processors don’t teach you to construct a sentence. Or to string a few sentences together into a coherent paragraph. They don’t teach you how to build a paper that has a beginning, middle and end.

    And if, in the universities where I taught over the past few years, I encountered one incoming student out of 25 who could do these things, it was a banner semester.

  22. Quick note: in 2004-2005, fewer than half of my 170+ students had computers at home. That was at a school in the second-wealthiest district in a major metropolitan area.

  23. Murray:

    Uh oh. You just hit Dr. Slammy’s hot button. He and I have had this conversation more than once. My first child attended a high school where graduates go on to schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech and the like on a regular basis. Students there win Intel International Science awards, NCTE writing contests, become National Merit Scholars on a regular basis, and the like. The school offers 28 AP courses, and more than 85% pass AP tests.

    And that’s just one high school. The other one in town may do even better.

    Clearly, this isn’t your average neighborhood. What I have trouble getting a handle on is the extent of the problem. The university where Dr. Slammy taught is, I believe, one that accepts pretty average students (if SAT scores on a mass basis are used). So he (and others) may well have a good handle on what average students look like these days as college freshmen.

  24. Ann:

    I find it stunning that fewer that half your students in a wealthy district don’t have computers in the home. I believe you, of course, but how in the hell is that possible? We have five in my home for four people. My daughter and I just finished cutting a 10 minute video for her 7th grade history day, and that needed a lot of computing power.

    How does one get by without a computer these days?

  25. My former school is at the bottom of the food chain in our district and on the edge of a demographic shift (I hate that phrase but don’t know what else to call it): more renters, less stable residency, fewer single-family homes. The old neighborhoods with small homes are now directly across a highway from a vast area of prime real estate being developed into gated communities; those communities are still (grudgingly) within our boundaries. And as the older neighborhoods empty, they’re being re-zoned and rebuilt with low-end retail spaces. That’s as well as I can explain it – it’s not my field of expertise, obviously.

    So there was and is an impressive and probably atypical range of income and race; that variety was one of the things I liked best about working there, but it made for a rollercoaster of a school day, every day.

    And I just realized: I still think of it as “my” school. Funny, huh?

  26. “the atmosphere of marijuana smoke which pervades your lovely home may also have something to do with it.”
    The top student in my graduating class was a constant marijuana smoker. he smoked it with his father.
    The son got a perfect SAT score and has since written some of the most widely used computer software.
    His father was a CEO of a large British firm.
    The school I went to has been one of the top rated High Schools in the USA for many decades.
    Every single one of the marijuana users I knew in high school have become highly successful adults. Some still smoke marijuana.
    I don’t recommend any behavior but my personal experience has shown that marijuana use does not result in poor grades, low income or lack of success in life.

  27. Dr. RB:

    Well, I suspect it has something to do with one’s starting point. Sure, if one is a genius with an eidetic memory, perhaps, from a vocabulary-rich home where high-level learning and accomplishment is an expectation, then one is probably strong enough to overcome the ball-and-chain effect of drug abuse.

    In other homes, that ball-and-chain is enough to root one on the spot, erasing whatever small chance a kid might have had.

  28. Murry:

    Last year I had my Western Civ students write several two page essays (typed) on some primary sources. I had to specify that it was 12 point Times Roman and 1″ margins. About 5% of the class could not follow those requirements. Most of the essays were consistent with what I consider HS freshmen English at best. I had people who wrote paragraph-long sentences, people with one paragraph for the entire essay, and about 99% of them had common grammatical mistakes. I had to explain to them that there should be an introduction, body, and conclusion to these essays. There were 2 essays in the entire class that were brilliant and made my semester. But I was greatly disturbed to find out that apparently most people these days do not know the difference between there, their, and they’re. Or between something simple like babies and baby’s. I teach at a large university in a poor state, but we are the flagship university.

  29. Sure, the teachers among you are singing “Amen.” Frankly, I don’t blame you. However, my problem is that when I say that I homeschool my children, you insist that they would be better off in schools so that they could SOCIALIZE with these morons. How much actual class time would they have with Ms. ________’s son in their class?

    P.S. As I have a degree in education, I already know the answer to my question. Just wanted to get you thinking about it.

  30. Susan,

    If you have a degree in ed, then you know that “home schooling” can signify a couple distinct things. One is a religious culture question, and the indictments of that shouldn’t be conflated with what you’re talking about.

    In your case, of course, the answer is that you shouldn’t HAVE to home school your kids in order to make sure they get a good education. And nobody here is attempting to talk about this in a vacuum, either – it’s a large, complex problem that has to be confronted on a number of levels, which is what the DS08 platform attempts to do.

  31. Susan – as the hubby of a credentialed teacher with an MS who’s doing the SAHM thing for a few years, I know that a mere education degree doesn’t make you, or anyone, an expert at teaching everything. While I have major issues with homeschooling, they apply far more to middle- and high school than to elementary school. The content in early education is far more general than it is in later grades, and the techniques required to teach it effectively to younger children are quite different from the techniques required in later grades.

    So, socializing aside, are you, or nearly any other homeschooler, qualified and credentialed to teach middle school math, science, social studies, and english (reading and writing)? How about high school American History, World History, biology, physics, chemistry (complete with labs), literature, geometry, algebra, AP calculus, and all the other courses that your children might get access to at a public, or even a private, high school?

    If you are, congratulations – you’re one of the few. And if you’re getting together with a group of other homeschoolers to specialize your high school teaching, then you’re no different from a private school – just less regulated.

  32. Yes, I love these posts that make me feel good about my homeschooling.

    As in virtual schooling one child (at home, with online teachers who are as you put it, credentialed) and homeschooling traditionally another child. One is graduating from an Ivy League school magna, and one has been accepted to another Ivy and will attend next year. With these results, I don’t feel I have justify my lack of credentials to prove academic success. And we loved homeschooling and I will miss it.

    And don’t have to deal with what this poor poster has to… I feel for you.

  33. Ann-

    While I did not get fired for giving the student a poor grade, when the mom came in and complained to the principal because her daughter did not make the honor roll for the first time ever, the principal went into MY online gradebook and changed the grade for the child so that her GPA would not suffer. In my book, that is even more of a crime.

    What does this say to the kids?
    p.s. I teach middle school

  34. Cory – I think your experience speaks to two things, the innate intelligence of your children and the overall poor quality of the education system here in the U.S., both at elite institutions and in teacher credentialing. It does not, in my opinion, say anything about your ability to teach, or not.

    To be blunt, some kids will succeed no matter what you do to hurt them, some kids will fail no matter what you do to help them, and every kid will do better with involved parents who appreciate the value of education.

  35. Oh, Brian. Don’t tell Cory the truth. He’s feeling good about himself and how great he is.