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Sponsored by the Letter F

written Sunday, 1/22/2006

‘F’ is for Fulfilling the customer

While employed at Lockheed Martin, I worked on engineering teams, which in turn delivered products and services to various branches of the armed forces. Throughout college, I worked in campus food services. During a couple of the summers, I packaged artwork in a warehouse. In high school, I worked at Burger King.

In all cases, I worked to fulfill “the customer.” As aggravating as the customer’s demands could be sometimes, the customer always wanted my services. Maybe the work wasn’t always enjoyable, but there was always a feeling of being wanted or needed.

Isn’t that how most jobs are? Don’t customers typically want you to perform well for them, and satisfy some desire or need in their lives? Sure, there are exceptions. In some jobs, “the customer” clearly does not want the service. Examples include the work of probation officers, telemarketers, parking enforcement officers, and proctologists. However, even in those thankless jobs, the employee doesn’t have to boldly face over 100 disinterested and dissatisfied customers every single workday. Teaching is one of the only professions that I can think of in which you, by yourself, have to steer herds of stubbornly unenthusiastic clients, several dozen at a time. Perhaps only referees and prison guards (I feel like both sometimes) face larger and more hostile audiences, but at least they get to wear really snazzy uniforms.

Alas, the plight of the unappreciated teacher…

‘F’ is for Failing

Sometimes it does feel that way – as if students would rather pass kidney stones than try to pass my course. Friday was the last day of the quarter, and I’ve just finished tallying up the final grades. I’ve long wondered how teachers determine their grading scales. The district’s mandatory scale provides a starting point: 95% for A, 88% for B, 78% for C, 70% for D, and below 70% for F. However, it’s largely up to the individual teacher to figure out how to weigh in factors such as effort, attendance, behavior problems, and excessively difficult or easy tests.

I was surprised by how easily I acquired a gut instinct for curving the grades to suit my sense of fairness. The district also requires that 67% of the quarter grade come from tests/quizzes, and 33% come from participation (which includes homework). Beyond that, I developed my own grading curve. When applied to all the students’ total scores, I felt that most students received the letter grades that they truly deserved. The only exceptions were students who were receiving better grades with their previous teachers in the first half of the quarter before joining my class in mid December. I gave some the benefit of a doubt, and passed a handful who have shown almost no effort in my class.

I really want all my students to succeed, and would have no objection to giving everyone an A if they truly earned it. I already “lowered the bar” as far as I could though, in good conscience. I can’t possibly pass students who demonstrate absolutely no understanding of the material, miss a third of the classes, or refuse to lift their heads off the desks. The final breakdown of grades for both my Geometry and Algebra 2 classes ended up being quite bleak:

Grade Number of students
A 3
B 13
C 23
D 27
F 33 (appeared in my class)
F 18 (probably transferred out, but never officially dropped)

From talking to other teachers, this distribution of grades is not unusual. In fact, at a recent faculty meeting the assistant principal said that 212 out of roughly 500 seniors are currently “failing.” I believe she meant that their grades up to now indicate they are not on course to graduate.

The second half of the school year starts tomorrow, and the struggle to motivate the perpetually-unmotivated continues.

‘F’ is for Fun?!

The academic (lack of) achievement at West Jefferson, and in this general region, is a downer. I crave the little indicators that I’m not completely wasting my time here. With every week I see a few more reasons to be hopeful. Sometimes it’s just the offer of a handshake from a student who is floundering in my class, but seems to know that I want the best for them. Or, amongst the students who have to see me for lunch detention, there are a few who voluntarily drop by for tutoring. There are even a few more who’ve started spending their lunch hour in my classroom, just to hang out. These are often the same students who know that they’re earning D’s or F’s in my class. It’s nothing personal.

On Thursday, one student in my afternoon Geometry class even described the class as “fun.” Imagine that! Another said, “I like you, Mr. White.” He just entered the class a couple weeks ago, and keeping him on task is a monumental challenge, but I still savor these little signs of hope.

My new ID badge, with corrected spelling (although printed academic year is one year behind)
Friday's article with photo of mentioned guard (middle) and center (right)

‘F’ is for Faulty

I finally went to get my photo ID badge last week. After taking my picture, the administrator started filling in the text fields. When typing in my status as “FACULTY,” she forgot to type the letter C. I politely pointed out her mistake. In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t. It would’ve made a rather funny conversation starter.

Would the unintentional word have referred to me, the school, the students, or all of the above? Discuss.

‘F’ is for Former Landry students

I stayed after school again on Friday to catch the basketball games (Boys JV, Girls, and Boys Varsity). Just that day, an interesting article was printed on the front page of the Times Picayune Sports section (For some reason, the article has not been posted on the Internet). It chronicles the story of New Orleans’ Landry High School basketball team, which was favored to finally earn a state title for it’s retiring coach. Hurricane Katrina spoiled their championship pursuit. Landry has yet to reopen, and now their players are scattered about the state and country. The article recounts the journeys of several Landry starters, four of whom landed at West Jefferson. The All-Metro guard was in my Algebra 2 class for two weeks before getting transferred out. I assume this was at his request, since he wasn’t doing so well. The solidly-built All-District Center, who’s a couple inches taller than I am, was also added to my Algebra 2 roster (I’m not accustomed to seeing students at my eye level). He too asked to be transferred out after a couple weeks, but was told to wait until the end of the quarter. I pulled him aside in the hallway one day before class. I suggested that he could do well academically if he’d just apply the same drive and determination that earned him an early athletic scholarship to Louisiana-Monroe. He seemed to resent the implication that he wasn’t trying. Since that brief conversation, he’s been exhibiting noticeably more effort in class. He appreciates seeing me attend the basketball games. A couple times I’ve asked him: Do you give up when you’re down by 20 points at halftime? Of course not.

Now we’ve just reached halftime in the academic year. It’ll be interesting to see if he resumes his request to get transferred to another math class. I hope he sticks around with me.

‘F’ is for friendships

Jeremy Sr. with Jr. at 6 mo.

The TGNO friends who’ve returned to the area continue to keep me relatively cheerful out here. Classes for TGNO start up again on January 30, and most likely will be online courses. Leslie, who I thought would be returning to Florida, just hired on to teach Geometry at Edna Karr. Robert works at Karr, and suggested that she interview there. Many West Jefferson students are now flocking back to Karr for the new quarter, so they needed to hire more teachers quickly.

I just saw Jeremy for the first time in five months. His son, Jeremy Jr., was born during the week of Tropical Storm Cindy in early July. Jeremy endures the hour-long commute to and from Baton Rouge at a middle school for students displaced by the hurricanes. We’re both too busy to hang out during the week, but we vowed to get together more often on weekends.

The charter middle school Nelson is rumored to be opening up soon. This provides hope that Sunday may be able to get her job back, and not choose to abandon teaching. Allison also hopes that she may be able to sign on, even though she had not originally hired on with Nelson. We’re all keeping our fingers crossed.