Sunday, May 22, 2011

One of the 417 frustrations of being a teacher

Being a teacher is generally a stressful, demanding, thankless job. We're largely unappreciated by our own students, unsupported by administration at critical moments, blamed for every child's shortcomings by their parents, and mocked and criticized by the general public since we apparently just sit at a desk for 10 months of the year and nothing else.

That's just par for the course most days. There are other times when something more irritating creeps up and punches me in the face when I thought I was having a pretty alright morning. One such thing happened last week.

I have a student whom we'll call Sam (chosen because this is not the student's name and it leaves to ambiguity even the student's gender). Sam is a senior and needs to pass my Latin class in order to graduate. Sam has failed two quarters this year and is in very serious danger of failing this quarter as well, which would be an automatic F for the year. At no time has Sam seemed particularly bothered, worried, upset, or panicked about this. At no time has Sam stayed after school for help, or made any real effort to get help during class.  One morning last week, my department chair pulls me out of class to tell me that Sam is graduating regardless, so my options are to give Sam a D (no matter what the actual grade is), or work with Sam after school in order to earn the D. There are 3 weeks left in the school year, and the seniors only need to continue to come to school for the first of those.

I suppose I would be remiss if I omitted the context of this situation, which will serve to explain much of it. Sam is a foster child who has lived a less-than-desirable life and has crappy foster parents. Sam's counselor posits that it is in the student's best interests to graduate as soon as possible and get a diploma, so that Sam will no longer need legal guardians.

Fast forward to lunch later that day, when my department chair informs me that Sam can stay after school on Friday for help. (Latin tutoring is available after school in my room to all students on Thursdays, or by appointment if that doesn't suit. It has been this way all year long.) When I hear this, I laugh in a very sarcastic and dismissive sort of way. The department chair picks up on this and asks what exactly that laugh was for. I basically just re-state for her what I discern to be the facts of the situation: Sam has been an unapologetic, abject failure for 95% of the school year, and now that failure is imminent, all of a sudden I will be graced with Sam's presence not on Thursday, but on Friday, when I'm supposed to be at home forgetting about situations like this which I'm fairly certain are shortening my life.

(Sam didn't even show up on Friday, incidentally. Wasn't even in school long enough that day to take the final exam, which I'm sure I'll now have to find some time to give to Sam when it's convenient.)

The department chair very much dislikes my assessment of the situation and initiates a level 3 flip-out, vociferously questioning my abilities to be a teacher and wondering when I'm "going to start caring about the kids." This was a very unpleasant few minutes, but I just sat and took in the spectacle of this person passing angry, profanity-laden judgment on me.

The only part I was really bothered about was the only part of the tirade I quoted directly; when am I going to start caring? Unfortunately my superior has this completely backwards - it is precisely because I do care that I find this all so troubling. I care about the integrity of my classroom, of my evaluations of my students, and the fair assessment of their work. I've been asked countless times by students, "why did you give me a (insert grade that isn't an A)?" I didn't. You earned it. That's what the sum of your efforts is worth this quarter. The sum of Sam's efforts this quarter, this year, is not sufficient to pass. Not even close.

I understand that Sam has been placed in a crappy situation which is beyond Sam's control. Sam is a victim of circumstance and has bigger problems than my class. The two options I have been given in this situation, however, are equally ridiculous.

If I'm just supposed to give Sam a passing grade regardless, then why has Sam even been in my class all year in the first place? Indeed, why even trouble Sam with having to come to school at all? If Sam doesn't have to earn a way out like everyone else does, then what's the use in cooping Sam up in school all day? Just mail out a diploma, goodbye! Moreover, what about the other students I have who are failing? Sam isn't the only one; maybe the others have got crappy lives too. Maybe nobody should fail. Sam is no less deserving of a failing grade than anyone else in that position.

The second option is actually more insulting, because it was presented to me as a "win-win" situation in which Sam graduates and I'm happy because Sam will have earned it. The implication here is that a student can atone for 9 months of sloth and indifference with one week of begrudging after-school work. Is that really all the last three quarters have been worth? An hour or two after school, and only because Sam has to in order to pass? At no point, I should add, has Sam actually come to me about this. All communication regarding these arrangements has come from the counselor.

The situation is dire. Sam currently has a 48%, which is not anywhere near the 60% required to pass for the quarter. If by some miracle Sam does manage to pass for the quarter, county policy still requires a passing grade on the final exam to pass the course. The chances of Sam passing the final are about the same as Helen Keller passing a driving test. Basically, it's a complete impossibility that Sam pass the course on merit. That means that either I roll over and put a D in the box, or I put E and the guidance office just changes it anyway. Ah, the joys of this work!

Moral of the story: please be nice to teachers. Sometimes it really sucks. Discuss.


  1. I feel your pain, believe me. It's just not fair how our lack of judgement and caring is ALWAYS under question. I might not always be the main person in the spotlight, but I am the person that spends hours at home writing IEPs (in my case) and doing all of the behind the scenes work to ensure the success of my students. I think everyone should be a teacher for a few weeks at some point.

  2. Fail the bugger, dude. Let them change it themselves. Just because you have no support and they don't respect rules and education doesn't mean you should stoop down to that level. Sam's gonna fail in life, too, so shim might as well get used to it.

  3. Love the use of the hybrid ambiguous personal pronoun, Ioscius.

  4. James, you are learning a valuable lesson about the real world. By "being a troublemaker" which is how your school administration will brand you by keeping this student from attaining their high school diploma, you could very well lose your job and ultimately harm your future career as a teacher by means of having a bad reference from this, your first teaching job. By having a diploma in hand, Sam will at least stand a remote chance of getting some sort of decent-paying job or perhaps entering the armed forces (which I believe requires a diploma) and can get out of his/her terrible foster care situation. And where in this student's life is the knowledge of Latin going to come in handy in terms of his/her ability to succeed as a productive member of society? The education system let this student down years ago and you're not going to change that at the last minute. In situations like this always look at the big picture, don't micromanage. That doesn't make it right but things aren't black and white in this world. Bottom it worth losing your job over this?

  5. Obviously you raise good points, ea09c736-851f-11e0-a661-000bcdcb471e. (Is that your real name? Finnish, I assume...) It's true that in some respect, at least part of the situation is not Sam's fault. It's also true that I will make some enemies by going against the grain on this. All things to consider while I see how things shake out.