Kids With Dead Moms

As a follow-up to last week’s bit about sick kids, here’s this: it’s surprising just how many kids out there have lost parents.  In some cases, both.

This last school year, I had three students whose mothers have died.  There may be more; those are just the ones I know of.  Another student had lost his father.  They’re holding up well, all things considered.

Especially in poverty-heavy areas, students are likely to be raised by someone other than a parent.  Grandparents raising kids isn’t uncommon.  About ten years ago, I knew a girl who was being raised by her great-grandparents.  Each of her parents, at different times, had just decided to skip town and go enjoy life.  She wasn’t stable.

Also not uncommon are single moms who can’t handle their sullen, violent sons, and who ship the boys off to live with dad to straighten them out.  It usually seems like too little, too late.

Variations on family failure just find different ways to hurt kids.  I once had a student whose father molested her.  I actually met him at a parent conference once, and never would have guessed it, though I don’t know what the signs would have been.  After he was arrested, she withdrew because of the shame and ended up moving away.

Another year there was a class with a young woman who had been crippled in an attack that also killed her little sister, a tragedy instigated by a drug deal her mom was involved in and which went sour.  That one had a happy ending: she got adopted by a great family who loved her.





Family Matters

From a recent edition of NPR’s Talk of the Nation:

When you have very low fertility rates, it may be OK for a while, but over time your population gets older and older. And as your population gets older and older, as I think Stan was pointing out, what you start to see is, if you will, the ecosystem for families begins to weaken.

You have – the schools begin to close down. The kind of restaurants and facilities you have, the tax system has to change in order to support the older people. So there are a lot of things that happen. But fundamentally, it’s not like we can have the population we have now, and that population will be, in terms of age, like it is. It will be very old. You have to start thinking about societies by 2050, where there’ll be more people over 80 than under 15.


PATRICE: Well, in my circle of friends, I’m about 24 hours old, and when I talk to a lot of my friends, we – a lot of them don’t seem to be interested in having kids at all. You know, it’s sort of the concept is odd, or they just think oh, well, it’s – kids are expensive, and they’re going to tie me down, I’m not going to be able to have the lifestyle I want, kind of like the guest is saying.

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But Will People Stop Bullying Teachers?

Nevada is in the middle of an official week-long campaign against bullying in schools.  There is much merit to this, but I have to wonder: with all of this emphasis on curbing the harassment of young people in schools, will anybody think to halt the bullying of teachers, also?

Who bullies the teacher?  Parents, mostly.  Ron Clark recently noted:

Today, new teachers remain in our profession an average of just 4.5 years, and many of them list “issues with parents” as one of their reasons for throwing in the towel. Word is spreading, and the more negativity teachers receive from parents, the harder it becomes to recruit the best and the brightest out of colleges.

I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of this.  All teachers have.  Continue reading

Yes, You Pay My Salary. No, You Are Not My Boss.

I cringe when I hear people say of teachers, “My taxes pay their salary–they need to be more cooperative and responsive to my needs!” 

What this really means is, “Give me what I want.”  What’s so wrong with that?  It’s wrong because schools are not customer satisfaction factories.  Our job is to educate future generations, even when it’s inconvenient, uncomfortable, or even upsetting to any individual or group.  In fact, real progress usually has to entail those things.  Public schools exist to safeguard the success of society, not to pander to the whims of individuals.  Sorry if that sounds cold or collectivist, but it’s true. 

Parents rarely seem to consider that all those exceptions, changes, and special favors they ask for don’t just affect their own children–while Mom and Dad often only care about the short-term outcome of a single issue, we teachers must be cognizant of long-term precedents and the ripple effect on an entire campus.  Just giving Junior that higher grade or privilege you’re agitating for will ultimately cause far more harm than good. 

But surely nobody thinks that good schools will make everybody happy all the time anyway!  It doesn’t matter that most parents are reasonable, decent people.  No public institution can function as a pure democracy–imagine if everybody (or only the good people–you know, like you) got what they wanted every time they were upset at a school.  It would be chaos!  How often do you think parental special interests contradict each other, anyway?  Sometimes people will say of rival gangs, “Just put them in a room and let them fight it out.”  Teachers often feel that way about parents. 

So, yes, parents are paying teachers, but not to be at their beck and call.  We’re paid for a service that, by its nature, must ruffle feathers at times. 

And it’s somewhat of a simplification to say that “your taxes” are paying teacher salaries, anyway.

The Biggest Way In Which We Fail Students

As an elementary school student, a teacher once told me, very politely and apologetically, that I couldn’t have something reasonable that I wanted in class because that would mean that other students would be entitled to the same thing, which would be bad for the class.  I’ve long since forgotten exactly what the situation was, but I remember the lesson–sometimes, things which might be justified must be denied because of the precedent that would be set. 

In high school, a science teacher once scheduled an activity important to the class at the same time that another important activity was scheduled for a popular student club.  Students couldn’t do both, yet both activities were good and valuable, and many students went into a tizzy, asking the teacher to change the day and time of his activity.  He declined, explaining that the real world does not rearrange itself so that people can get to do every worthwhile thing they want to do–priorities must be set, and sacrifices must be made. 

He was absolutely right.  That was a crucial life lesson. 

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Another Friendly Parenting Tip

Hey moms and dads out there, here’s an idea–being involved in your child’s education is a good thing, but did you know that it actually means doing more than just bullying your child’s school whenever you don’t get your way?  This message has been a courtesy of America’s frustrated teachers.


Parenting 101

During the year I spent working as a school counselor, I wanted to put a sign on the door of my office that said, “Parents: you are not doing your children a favor by excusing them from the natural consequences of their choices.”  That sign would have cut my work load–and stress–in half.  I’ve been thinking about that sign a lot as this school year winds down.

An Anti-Teacher Witch Hunt

News outlets reported on Thursday that Natalie Munroe, a teacher in Pennsylvania, had been suspended, pending termination, for writing critical comments about her students on her blog. 

According to the articles (such as here and here), she had written that her students were “lazy” and “whiners,” among other things.  My initial thought was to ask if she had directed comments at any certain students, or called them by name.  It appears that she hadn’t.  She did, however, use profanity on the blog; while it is unclear from the reports if it was directed at the students, it probably was, and that would be wrong–abusive language is never appropriate.  She also seems to have made comments about children’s physical appearances, and written things like, “I hate your kid.”  Yes, that’s over the line.

But the headlines, the complaints against her, and the comments on articles I’ve read mostly excoriate her for criticising students in general, not for the inappropriate content itself.  Parents and students at the school are outraged that a teacher could write about frustrations over poor student performance. 

Really?  Have any of the offended parties here bothered to consider what merit the criticisms might have?  Is it really so awful to suggest that maybe, just maybe, some teens actually are lazy whiners? 

Before anyone goes crying “Blasphemy!” and prepares to storm my castle with pitchforks and torches, can you see the irony of the situation?  If the teacher here was saying that her students and their parents are self-absorbed and entitled, how exactly is their response proving her wrong? 

About a year and a half ago, a report was released which studied 30,000 American teens and found that a third of teens are thieves, two thirds are cheaters, and about 80% lie to their parents.  Fully 93%, however, said that they are proud of their good character.  Wow. 

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If the Real World Worked the Way Students and Parents Think School Should Work

Scene 1

IRS- Tax forms must be submitted by April 15.  No exceptions. 

Citizen A- But I didn’t have time!  I had other things to do. 

IRS – What things got in the way of a priority obligation that comes around ever year?

Citizen A – You know, like dances and field trips and clubs and stuff.

IRS – That’s OK.  Just get it in when you have a chance, please.

Citizen B – I didn’t understand it.  Can I just do it later?

IRS – Did you file for an extension with us first?

Citizen B- No.

IRS – Did you contact us for help ahead of time?

Citizen B – No.

IRS – Sure!  Do whatever you want! 

Citizen C – I have some other excuse.  Can I get out of it, too?

IRS – Of course!  Those firm deadlines aren’t for people with excuses for not getting it done. 

Citizen D- This sucks.  I don’t want to do it either.

IRS – Hey, sure, cool.  No pressure.  Do some of it when you can, or not.  Whatever you want. 

Citizen E- I already did my taxes, but I did them way, way wrong.  Can I still turn them in and get credit?

IRS- Fine by me!  It wouldn’t be fair to make you do them over.


Scene 2

Boss- Smithson, you’ve been late to work more often than not, you no-call/no-showed twice, your last expense report was copied from Wikipedia, and you keep breaking the company’s policy about no personal calls during work hours.  I’m afraid I have to reduce your salary.

Employee- You can’t do that!  You hate me!  That’s not fair! 

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Twelve Notes About Summer School

Today was the first day of the second session of summer school.  Twelve notes about this summer so far:

  • On the first day, I asked kids to write down a few hobbies and interesting things about themselves so I could learn their names better.  One boy put down for his first hobby, “smoking.”  A girl wrote one word: “lesbian.”
  • One boy put down “tattooing” as a hobby.  I can’t help but notice just how many kids have tattoos now.  They’re not small, either.  Maybe a quarter of the boys in summer school have large tattoos on their arms, and it’s long since become very common for teenage girls to have lumbar tattoos.  These aren’t amateur tats done by friends in their bedrooms, these are professional store-bought works.  Clearly, they’re getting these either with parental approval or money, or at least without opposition.  What are these parents thinking?  Permanently scarring the body of a teenager?  How do they think this will affect them in life, already setting the bar of acceptable behavior that low?  If they’re getting tattoos at 15, what do they think their children will they be doing at 25?  Volunteering to read to blind orphans at the hospital? 
  • On the first day of class, I noticed two kids who spent their down time between assignments doodling in their notebooks.  They drew mushrooms and one girl decorated a graffiti-styled “420,” a popular reference to marijuana smoking.  She also had a 504, which isn’t surprising–I’ve come to believe that much of America’s special education, therapy, and remediation for teens is just treating their drug use. 
  • When I asked students to write interesting things about themselves for first day introductions, several put down their ethnicity. Continue reading

Counseling With Counselors, part I

On Tuesday, a counselor at my school sent an email out to all of a certain student’s teachers, asking for help with his struggling performance, at the request of the student and his mother.  Though I commended them for this interest and effort, and the counselor for facilitating that, the substance of my comments was as follows:

Thank you for working with _____ and his mom. He’s really a decent kid; I enjoy having him in class and hope he turns around and does well.

That being said, let’s not all go through that dog and pony show where we shrug our shoulders and pretend we don’t know what’s wrong here. In my class, for example, last quarter, _____ had three large homework projects, which were discussed in class, literally, every day, with handouts given and posted online. None of them were turned in. He clearly didn’t study for the last big vocab quiz, either. He has another quiz Thursday and another big project–which we’ve also reviewed every day this quarter–due in two weeks. I can only hope he turns it in.

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Parents of the Week: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


A boy in an honors class mocked an assignment on Tuesday with his partner, then decided to declare to everyone that “this class is pointless.”  I called him on it, and he wasn’t the least bit ashamed or penitent. 

I called his mother and she was mortified.  She apologized profusely and asked to come in to see me and have him apologize, even asking if she could sit in class with him next time.  We met before school Thursday and she read him the riot act.  I showed her his work from that day, which was by far the shortest, sloppiest paper from the class.  I said I’d like him to do it over, and she assured me it would be done over the weekend, adding that any future work that was of substandard quality would also be revised to my liking. 

After this had all been explained, I asked him if he understood.  He sat silently until his mother told him to answer with, “Yes, sir.”  He sullenly said, “Yes.”  She told him again to be more respectful, threatening to smack him if he didn’t.  He again responded with attitude, so she reached around and slapped him on the back of the head.  This time he said, “Yes, sir.” 

She thanked me for my effort and assured me again that he would perform better, in academics and behavior.  I have no doubt that he will. 



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Sad, Sadder, Saddest


A Las Vegas police officer was struck and killed by a suspected drunken driver while responding to a domestic violence call in the southwest valley early this morning.


The officer, 28-year-old James Manor, was trapped in his patrol car for several minutes before emergency responders were able to extricate him and take him to University Medical Center.




The call that police received was that the girl had been beaten by her father who had left, according to police. Twenty minutes later the girl called police back, claiming that he was coming home and that she was bleeding from her arm and had a black eye.


Police dispatchers summoned 28-year-old officer James Manor and another unit.


Manor wouldn’t make it.


Karen said neither she nor her husband were home when their daughter made the calls. She was at the hospital being treated for kidney failure. Her husband had gone to pick her up. When they arrived home, Karen took the phone away from her daughter and explained to dispatchers that the situation wasn’t what she had made it out to be.


Her daughter didn’t have any marks on her face and wasn’t hurt.


Her daughter had trashed the apartment while her parents were gone, however. The mirrors were smashed. Karen’s perfume bottles were in pieces.


Karen didn’t find out until later through news reports that an officer responding to her daughter’s call had died.




“I had no idea who he was, but I heard he was a very good man,” she said. “I’m very sorry for his family and for everything else.”


A few minutes later, Karen’s daughter came bounding up the stairs, a petite blonde with a ponytail in black jeans and a black T-shirt.


Karen stopped her and put a hand on her shoulder.


“I’m going to tell you something,” Karen said. “You know that night, with you and your father? That night that you had called is the night that police officer died because he was coming to your phone call. But we’re going to stop at that.”


Her daughter blinked.


“I’m hungry. Did you eat my doughnut?”


Liberal Teachers

It surprises me that so many teachers are liberals.  My associations with many dozens of teachers over the years has shown that we’re almost unanimously in agreement on the things that hold back student achievement: apathetic parenting and cultural poison that subverts our efforts.  These are both (at least in our current political climate) essentially conservative concerns. 

And yet, our most vocal teachers, as well as administrators, unions, and districts, tend to obsess over ideas that are inherently liberal: increasing spending, adding more bureaucrats and programs to the system, and increasing regulation of what individual campuses can do.  This, despite the total failure of any of these things to do any good at all for the several decades that they’ve been in vogue.

Anybody else reminded of the caucus race in Disney’s version of Alice in Wonderland?  Leftist policies tend to bring that to mind for me.

Anyway, I think I realize now why so many education professionals are liberals.  It must be an automatic defense mechanism, because being a conservative teacher is enough to drive anyone insane.

It’s easy to keep running around trying all these new programs in our schools and crying for more money, because that strategy can never fail: if results don’t improve, just insist that we haven’t come up with enough programs and money yet.  The beautiful thing with this strategy is that it allows us to focus on things we can control: the teaching profession can keep tweaking the details of campus routines endlessly and without benefit, but (much like the thinking behind the stimulus package) at least we’re doing something, right? 

Certainly this approach is much easier (and more sanity-friendly) than resigning to the truth that the vast majority of the factors that influence the quality of our work are well beyond our control.  Why would any administrator try to improve the conditions of a community that produces lackluster students–a Herculean task, to say the least–when he or she can just get on board with the established program: fiddle around with the procedures for department meetings in your school, assign teachers more paperwork, and lobby for more education spending?

There’s just no natural incentive for teachers to be conservatives, because it will only lead to more frustration. 

My students this year are ten times more productive than my students were during my first few years teaching.  Did I become a better teacher?  Not at all; I do most things exactly the same way.  I just got a job in a better part of town.

Attention Parents: We Are NOT A Correspondence School

Is this a Las Vegas thing?  A week never passes without a student coming into class to declare that they’ve been absent for the last two or three days, and then stare at me expectantly.  I try to draw out some civil cooperation from them by saying something like, “And…..”

Then they will usually ask for all of their make up work.  When I explain that covering two or three days’ worth of instruction, examples, and assignments will take more than the ten seconds available right before the bell rings, they tend to look put out.  My insistence that they come in before or after school to review their works irks them to no end.

Even worse is the dgeree to which we facilitate such a mindset.  My school district allows students to take a form around to their teachers that essentially says, “My parents are taking me out of town for whatever reason next week.  I’ll be gone for three days.  Please give me all my work now.”  Like most teachers, I tell them that they’ll just need to do most, if not all, of that work when they get back. 

What, don’t I plan in advance?  Of course, but this community seems to have it in their heads that school work is just a bunch of handouts that can be given and done whenever is convenient.  No thought is given for discussion, performances, participation, questions and answers in class, etc.

When the majority of “make up work” is done poorly and gets a low grade, kids seem baffled. 

Lean in closely because I’m going to whisper, OK?  This is not a correspondence school!  If you could simply fill in worksheets and get credit, we wouldn’t need school at all.  If you think you can skip a week and be fine, catching up with no real effort on your part, why not just cut to the chase and get your GED?  That appears to be what a lot of people really want.

This mentality bleeds over into college.  In those classes, especially freshmen classes, they’re indignant that I require attendance, and enforce the department’s loss of credit policy for excessive absences.  And yet, when they ditch class, they expect to turn in whatever work they want, when they want, for full credit, to be excused from assignments they weren’t here for, or to have the curriculum adjusted to be comfortable with their absences. 

I hate having to teach responsibility, but if that’s the skill they need…

Where’s the outcry from the parents?  Where’s the demand for high standards–no, adequate standards?  When we enable a lower level of maturity for our students, don’t be surprised when we end up with a society full of people who never show up for work, but who get huffy when they don’t get paid.