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My Team in the Blame Game

written Saturday, 3/11/2006

I assume we can all agree that public education in America today leaves much to be desired. While scholars and pundits debate every side of the issue, I won’t pretend to fully comprehend why the picture has gotten so bleak. I guess I entered teaching with an idealistic desire to be one small piece of a solution for a problem that I don’t completely understand.

My idealism still lives on, although slightly battered over the last half-year. It has to live on, if I’m to remain in this field. I truly believe that all my students deserve a good education, and I don’t accept that any of them are inherently dumb. Rather, I’m sure it took many years of diligent practice for them to develop such an unwavering commitment to educational apathy. How do I, as their teacher, overcome such conditioning? Education has to be a team effort, but I alone am not strong enough to carry the team.

From that standpoint, I thoroughly enjoyed an article that a friend sent to me recently. A high school English teacher in Virginia wrote the opinion piece, titled “For Once, Blame the Student For Once, Blame the Student.” It starts off:

Failure in the classroom is often tied to lack of funding, poor teachers or other ills. Here’s a thought: Maybe it’s the failed work ethic of today’s kids. That’s what I’m seeing in my school. Until reformers see this reality, little will change.

One point in the article resonates with me more than any other: A teacher is quoted as saying “Today, the teacher is supposed to be responsible for motivating the kid. If they don’t learn, it is supposed to be our problem, not theirs.” I see this so often at West Jefferson, where kids constantly complain that their teachers aren’t teaching them anything. Meanwhile, I see the kids making so little effort to receive and process the information presented to them. Thankfully, there are a small percentage of my students who make the effort and convince me that my time and energy aren’t completely wasted. I’ve practically apologized to the brightest ones for the painfully slow pace of the class. I’ve also thanked a few of them for their attentiveness and willingness to learn, since they’re the ones who keep me going.

Then there are the handful of kids who genuinely try, yet still fail miserably. Those are the ones who cause me the most heartache. They pay attention in class, and complete all the classwork assignments, yet have no chance of passing. I feel terrible putting an F on their report cards. As the end of the third quarter draws near, I worry that their failing grades will cause them to completely give up in the fourth quarter. For the graduating seniors who at least demonstrate minimal effort, I question whether I should grade them more leniently than the other students. If they’re not going to college anyway, what good am I serving by road-blocking their graduation? Will they really benefit from the added hurdle of a month-long summer school session when they couldn’t grasp the material during a full school year? I’m sure there’s a compelling argument why I should go ahead and hold up their diplomas, but until I hear it or think of it myself, I suspect I’ll bend my own ethics a bit.

As for the 10th and 11th graders who try, yet still fall flat, I’m a little more hesitant to gift a grade. I keep asking myself, is there any way I can possibly justify giving them a D? Then I think about how far behind they already are, and how even further behind they will fall in their next math class. To grant them an undeserved grade would be a disservice to them and their future math teachers. Lately though, I’ve been fantasizing about entering into a contract with some of these students, in which I’d state: “I, Mr. White, agree to give ___________ a passing grade in exchange for he/she agreeing to never, ever take another math class again in his/her life.” Alas, I’m awful!

I’ve written in past entries about some long-shot students from whom I’ve been able to extract faint signs of educational life. I believe my little one-on-one motivational speeches are effective in producing brief glimmers of hope, but sustained efforts are proving to be much more elusive. Almost all of my “long shots” have completely given up hope by now, which often leads to behavior problems. With no academic goals for my class, why wouldn’t they act up? Over the last couple weeks, a good number of my most disruptive students haven’t been showing up. I feel a bit guilty with each sigh of relief that I breathe when one of them is absent another day. I don’t dislike these students on a personal level, but my job is so much less painful when they’re not in class. Perhaps I should be concerned – Are they okay? Instead though, I just assume that they’re cutting class, and once again I fantasize about writing another contract: “I, Mr. White, agree not to write up ___________ for cutting class as long as he/she agrees to keep doing so through the rest of the school year.” Egad, I’m terrible!

Indeed, teaching is a team effort, and I’m managing the urban Bad News Bears. Last week I had to create a PowerPoint presentation for one of my UNO classes. (Yes, my TGNO classes at the University started up in late January. Every week I’ve been intending to write about them, but for some reason I keep neglecting to do so.) While perusing the Microsoft website for a pre-made template, I saw one designed for a slideshow on Teamwork. What a great topic for a presentation! I spent about five minutes writing the primary content. Then I proceeded to spend the next four hours applying the bells and whistles. I had so much fun with this assignment, that I converted it to Flash format so that I could post it on my website. Watch and learn (Yeah, there’s audio):

If the presentation/animation doesn’t play in the pop-up window, download and install Flash Player 6 or later from