A Secret About Classroom Crowding

Everybody knows that classrooms are overcrowded.  Many would be surprised, though, to hear how bad it is: some classes will start this year with upwards of 50 kids in them.  Shocking!

But don’t worry.  It’s not as bad as they say.  Really!

Most of those explosive numbers are in remedial classes.  One of the reasons why kids end up in those lowest-level classes is because of their chronic truancy–many of them won’t bother to show up a good deal of the time.

So in a class of 50, maybe 40-45 will show up on any given day.

And with all the transiency and disciplinary measures that will always accompany lowest-level classes, by the end of the school year that 50-kid roster will be down to about 30.

The 50-student class will exist far more often on paper than in actual seats in a classroom.

A Lack of Failure In Schools

Some current received wisdom: failure is good for us because it’s a strong teacher, and American kids today don’t get to experience it enough because they’re bubble-wrapped through life.

Both ideas have a lot of truth to them, but there’s another that needs to get out there, too:

American kids do still experience failure–constantly–but it’s been completely neutered.

Young people don’t fear failure, nor do they learn from it, though many of them will fail test after test, class after class, all the way through their school career.

Why?  Because what happens after those failures?  Increased practice?  Shame?  Loss of privileges?

Nope.  Nothing.  After the vast majority of daily school failures in this country, for the average teenager, life will proceed normally, as if nothing bad had happened at all.

We, as parents and school personnel, not only don’t hold their feet to the fire, we actively intervene to soften the natural consequences of failure.

In a climate like that, how could students possibly be expected to learn anything about academics, much less life?  Where’s the incentive?

If anything, they learn that failure is harmless and that hard work is pointless.  These lessons would prove terrifying in the real world if the real world itself weren’t increasingly so bent on maintaining that status quo…


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.

Education Activism and Unintended Consequences

I sent the following as a letter to the Las Vegas Review-Journal a week ago.  Apparently, they didn’t want to run it, so here it is:


There has been much sound and fury of late from well-meaning Nevadans regarding Governor Sandoval’s proposed budget cuts to education, but in their zeal they may have set up a tragedy.

Many of my fellow teachers and parents have been saying that these budget cuts would prove disastrous to education in Nevada. Dire predictions of doom and gloom abound that, should the budget cuts materialize, Nevada students would be condemned to eternal ignorance.

Perhaps they’re exaggerating to emphasize their point, but can’t these academic Jeremiahs see the danger of their hyperbole? If these budget cuts do pass, what message has this community now sent to our students? Might young people pick up on the idea that their fate has been sealed, and that further effort is hopeless? Might the economic situation, at the very least, be used by some as an excuse for failure?

Lobbying for schools is noble, but hopefully the fatalism so prominent in this conversation won’t turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Counseling With Counselors, part II

This morning, I received the following email from a counselor colleague:

_____ is currently getting an “F” in your _____ class ____ period. She feels she will not be able to get her percentage up enough to pass, and therefore has signed up for AIS Eng. 4, second semester. Would you please allow her to use class time to work on her course? She has a full-time job and any time she could use to work on the AIS class would help her a great deal! Please have a discussion with her about it and thanks!

This was my instant response:

_____, _____ “feels” like she isn’t going to pass, so you want her to stay sitting in my class but doing what she wants for the AIS you’ve gone ahead and signed her up for instead?

I’m sorry, but that’s ridiculous. What kind of message does that send? What precedent does it establish? Continue reading

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. 



Continue reading

School Stereotypes Busted By Experience

It’s embarrassing now to remember just how much and how easily I bought into the media’s manufactured worldview when I was a teenager: the shallow narcissism, the wasted opportunities, the arbitrary hostility, the one-dimensional politics, and, especially, the clearly delineated little pigeon holes into which everybody was neatly forced to fit. 

Those steroetypes are, of course, most clear at school, where the media’s control of youth culture is so blatantly displayed that you’ll quickly find plenty of teenagers actively striving to conform to their preset personalities. 

I’m now in my ninth year of teaching, but it didn’t take more than the first couple of years to completely disabuse my mind of nearly everything I had assumed before.  There are genuine rebels out there; young people who live by their own chosen rules rather than adopting the guise of some media outlet.  They’re just not the ones we’ve been trained to expect.

I could see this post turning into a series.  For now, I’ll focus on just two of our popular assumptions that have been completely obliterated by my observations so far this decade:

Jocks and cheerleaders are dumb.  Continue reading