A Very Disturbing Week

   I was not in school on Monday when report cards were distributed.  I knew I would have some unhappy customers; several of the off-track seniors in my Problem-Solving class earned a grade of 60 in the second marking period.   A grade of 60 denotes that the student is not currently passing, but that there is an expectation that, with some effort, they can bring their grade up to passing by the end of term (January), as opposed to a grade of 55, which indicates that passing is not as likely.

When students are not quite on the cusp of passing, especially when they are seniors who need a particular credit for graduation, ’rounding up’ to a 65 is a dangerous thing to do in Marking Period 2.  Many of these students, given a passing grade, are confident that they have completed what needs to be done, and will exert minimal effort in Marking Period 3, which can cause their average to drop well below a passing percentage.  This not only creates a very unpleasant surprise for the student, parents, and guidance counselor, but also threatens the student’s graduation (there may not be enough math electives for them in the spring term), and quite frequently results in the teacher looking for some alternative assessment by which the student’s work can be deemed ‘passing’ without feeling like she gave away a grade.  Because I volunteer to teach math electives frequently, I am very familiar with this scenario, and usually have some ideas for alternatives in my back pocket for eleventh hour solutions.

In my Problem-Solving course this term, I have accepted [very] late work, and have created as many opportunities as I can think of for students to legitimately demonstrate that they are, indeed, trying to solve problems.  But as I have written about in prior posts, I have had serious classroom management issues this term – excessive and consistent lateness, minimal effort extended to complete work, cell phones, cell phones, cell phones, and socializing.  And I have encountered a lack of respect for the classroom and me that is disturbing in its depth and occasional animosity.  I pride myself on being respectful and caring towards my students, and have had that attitude reciprocated toward me.    I don’t take this behavior personally (most of the time); my students have many obstacles to deal with, and my math class is just another one on the list.  That said, it’s still pretty damn unpleasant.

The students who aren’t passing usually acknowledge their role in the low grade, and a number of them pointed out to me today how they are ‘doing their work now.’ So the first thing that’s disturbing to me this week is what they believe constitutes ‘doing their work.’  I model, I give them room to collaborate and discuss, I circulate, scaffold and differentiate in my approach, but for a whole group of kids, the standard of work I require is unacknowledged.  Has the bar been this low for them all along?  Is this acute senioritis?  How am I missing the mark?  The book An Ethic of Excellence haunts me;  I have what remains a fantasy of inspiring and leading my students to new levels of work, but the result eludes me.  And the gap between what they think is acceptable and what actually constitutes evidence of effort and understanding is too wide for me to be satisfied with the results of my teaching.

So this whole scenario weighs on me.  But what happened this week has unnerved me and left me thinking really hard about this communication gap.  One of the students who earned a 60 – a student with whom I had friction earlier in the term and with whom I thought I come to a detente – was enraged by his grade.  He came to class on Tuesday, when I returned, and accused me of lying; he told me (repeatedly) he would not let me teach the class until I explained why I was lying about his grade.  I offered to speak to him privately, but he continued loudly and threateningly in this vein, indeed preventing me from teaching, blocking me up at the front of the classroom.  I had no choice but to have him removed from the room.  This specifically directed unappeasable rage is a first in my ten years of teaching.

The student, as it turns out, has failed three classes this term (all with a 60), and created a similar scene in another class.  He was in the building all week, but did not return to class.  To be honest, I was concerned about his behavior if he did come back – the depth of his anger and his refusal to listen to anything I had to say left me wondering what I could possibly due to begin to fix this.  I reviewed his progress report, went through his notebook and classwork folder, and verified that his grade was accurate.  The dean’s office was able to reach his mother (this took a couple of days) and scheduled a meeting for this morning.  I came prepared with the progress report and copies of make-up work for him to complete which would certainly bring his grade back up to a passing level.

The student – who did not acknowledge my presence, referring to me as ‘she’ – repeatedly said that I was lying, that he wasn’t going to talk about it, that all his work had been done, and that I was lying, lying, lying.  He said he wouldn’t make up any work because I was a liar.  And the force of his anger was palpable, although it was unjustified.

I left after I told the dean and his mother that the student could make up the missing work; sitting there and being called a liar repeatedly – without being able to respond – felt awful in a way I’ve never felt before.  I wonder if my students (and perhaps this boy in particular) ever feel like that, or if they feel that way often.    I was unnerved, to say the least, by the meeting, and it is a feeling I have not been able to shake.  I believe that this student did not earn a passing grade in my class, and has not been doing a passable level of work since his grade of 70 in the first marking period, but clearly he sees things quite differently.

So putting aside this particular situation, I question whether my students have a misconception of what is required of them, or acceptable, regardless of what I believe to be my clarity, both written [course contract] and spoken.  [I’m using ‘I’ here because I don’t want to presume that my situation is broadly general, but I do wonder if it is.]  I know there is no magic pill, but I wonder what techniques or procedures I can use to reinforce these expectations, because I believe that beyond my classroom, the students need to be able to make sense of what is expected in them in college, on jobs, in life.  And I am looking in the mirror and trying to figure out what it is I am and am not communicating.

If I have any goal as a teacher, it is to show my students that they are capable of good solid work, of learning math and solving problems regardless of their experiences before they entered my classroom.  This term I am failing to meet that goal in the Problem Solving classes.  If I can fix things for some children now, that would be great, but at the very least, I want my failure to be a learning experience for me.

I welcome your thoughts.

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6 comments

  1. carloliwitter

    My first thought was, this must be very frustrating to deal with. It seems like they were shooting for the barest of minimums and thus lost the larger focus of the class, and maybe school in general. Instead of thinking about learning they are just trying to do “enough” not realizing that “enough” requires more than they thought. So now they feel upset about the grade that they can’t acknowledge the learning that it was wrapped around. I had another senior who brought their mother to class because they thought being present at a class should earn then credit, even though they admittedly didn’t do any work.

    One one hand this situation might be delusion about what is required for school. On the other hand, because these kids are so close to graduation, it may also be the terror associated with potentially not graduating. They may only have one assignment to redo, but the fight or flight respond kicks in and they can’t see the assignment, or anything logical. They may be seeing their uncle who dropped out, and is unemployed, or their friends who are passing, that they won’t graduate with, or the fact that they won’t go to college or whatever. If that is where the kid is, then you can either try to get in there and deconstruct why they’re reacting that way, what they’re afraid of, or wait for the storm to clear.

    My second right was, if the storm doesn’t clear, send them to us! That reaction might be because the student has a number of credits they need to earn and without yours they may think June graduation is impossible. If the student is upset because they don’t think they will graduate on time, and are lashing out at school and teachers, they may subconsciously be laying the mental ground work to justify severing their connection with school entirely. A different setting may do them well, and transfer schools like mine might help them earn a difficult variety of credits that your school can’t.

    Sometimes it might not be what you are communicating, but what your school, or schooling as a whole is communicating to this student that determines their actions and how it’s filtered through their experiences. It might not be just about you.

  2. Wendy Menard

    Carl – thanks for this thoughtful reply. For whatever confluence of reasons, many of the students I am seeing in the classes are delusional about what constitutes ‘enough.’
    I am a big fan of transfer schools; I don’t know how many my current school sends, but I remember at the school I worked at previously, when a student decided to go to a transfer school they were taking a big step in owning their own progress. A large – very large – high school is a great place for a kid to hide when they are avoiding whatever the classroom brings; transfer schools are so much better at seeing every student.

  3. Darryl Yong

    I felt upset just reading your post. i can’t imagine what it might have been like to receive that kind of treatment. Ugh. Hugs to you. May the upcoming break wash away the ickiness and renew and restore you. I’m channeling visions of lakeside Vermont in the summer to you!

  4. Pingback: The Equalizer | Her Mathness
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