Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What Are Your Next Steps? Putting Responsibility for Learning Completely on the Teacher

Every year, teachers across the country are subjected to Quality Reviews (QR), Joint Intervention Team (JIT) and other highly subjective, political walkthroughs by an evaluator.  It is torturous for the educators involved.  The evaluators seem to relish making teachers squirm, asking them seemingly impossible questions.  One loop of questionning involved the early dismissal of Catholic students so they may attend religious education.  The visitors wanted to know what the teachers did with the remaining students.  Was it instruction, or just busy-work?  Oh, that's easy, of course we are doing instruction.  But, then, what about the kids who are not present, aren't they missing out on instruction?  This one is a little harder to answer, so let's say, no, it is enrichment work.  Aren't the absent students missing out on this enrichment work?  No, it's enrichment, it isn't crucial to their learning.  Uh-oh, so it's busy work?  The evaluator has you right where he wants you: you cannot win this.  It doesn't  matter that it is not the teacher's policy to allow certain students to leave class; teacher's are held responsible for everything nowadays. 

Last year, I was grilled by an evaluator about the "next steps" I take when a child doesn't understand a topic.  I have a parent phone call log a mile long, I post each child's progress on a website, and I break down lessons to a point where I need an atom-smasher to break them down any further.  I have students who don't do a blessed thing and their parents don't care.  None of this can be used as an answer to the "next steps" question.  If you answer that you use one-on-one help, the follow-up question is "what would your next steps be if the student still didn't understand the lesson?".  If you answer that you stay after school to tutor the student individually, the response would be "what would your next steps be if the student still didn't understand the lesson?"  If you reply that...; well, you get the idea.  As if teachers are not under attack enough, we are subjected to this excruciating verbal cruxifiction.

She is a true angel, however, even
her "next steps" didn't help Marcus.
And most teacherscannot take a
failing child into their home.
After this painful observation and interaction with the evaluator, I really did start to think of the "next steps", and it seems to me that the only possible answer that would stop the endless loop of the same question would be to adopt the child in question.  There are so many children with horrible home lives, and more than once I have envisioned bringing some into my life full-time, although I have never seriously pursued that.  Imagine my reaction, then, when watching the fantastic documentary on PBS's Frontline, "Dropout Nation", when one of the administrators of a "last chance" high school took a 17-year old who was arrested for dealing drugs into her own home.  This woman, Brandi Brevard, had three young children of her own.  She was counseling the student, Marcus, on strategies he could use to get to class (he lived one block from the school, so, hmmmm, an alarm clock?) and to stop using marijuana.  She would call him to wake him, went to pick him up in the mornings, and hunted high and low for him after he was released from jail, but this did not help him solve the problem.  So, for her, the "next steps" actually were adopting or at least feeding, clothing, caring and sheltering one of her charges.

How many last chances should we give
 Marcus?  At some point, shouldn't he have
to take responsibility for himself?
So, the happy ending to this program was that Marcus, the drug dealing student, kept the straight and narrow and graduated without incident, right?  Wrong.  Two hours before the end of school on the last day of classes, Marcus hit another student.  Mrs. Brevard told him on the phone, "You're done".  The program ended there, and it didn't ask what her "next steps" were.  But, earlier in the program, when two other students ended up dropping out after above-and-beyond care and understanding and life-skill coaching, the principal explained that some students don't "buy into" all that the school does for them.  And that is the problem: the students don't hold up their end of the bargain.  What's next?

I liked Marcus, just as I like all kids.  However, teachers cannot be held accountable for everything.  Young people make bad choices.  Some of them learn from these mistakes, such as the one student, Marco, featured on the program who did graduate.  Others blame everyone and everything else, and they keep making the same bad decisions.  Are educators supposed to assist every child that doesn't help him or herself?  Because, at some point, you have to say "enough is enough".  If I teach a lesson to the class as a whole, and some students choose to disrupt, distract and thwart me, should it be my problem to force them to learn?  Should I then take my time, time away from other students and my own family, to teach them one-on-one because they chose to not pay attention?  I say no.  Some kids fail.  We don't have an education crisis, we have a parenting crisis.  We have a responsibility crisis.  But I'll never tell the evaluators that.

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