Thursday, May 12, 2005

File under "Excusing the parents yet again, or how not to teach accountability to your kids"

What are the odds that I write about a topic (see previous note on McEwan book) only to have the news validate it somehow? Actually, I was not terribly surprised when I heard about this. Through NCTE's Inbox Newsletter, I heard about a teacher in Georgia that was pressured to change a student's grade. The brief note on the newsletter indicated that this was an example of how teachers often see their principals side with the parents no matter how right a teacher may be. So, what else is new? I decided to check the story myself, which came out of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week. Unfortunately, when I used the link from the newsletter, I found that the newspaper is one of those in an increasing number of newspapers requiring registration. Since I am not about to become a regular reader of an Atlanta newspaper, as fine a publication as it can be, I had to find the article some other way. Also, I happen to value my online privacy as much as possible, so I resist registering as much as I can. What I did was I used Lexis-Nexis Academic, to which we have access in the library, and I read the story that way. A search for "teacher and grades" set to last week and to look for the newspaper itself will yield the story and the follow-ups. Again, this is a nice opportunity to promote public libraries if you need access to the database. If they don't have Lexis, odds are they will have something like Newspaper Source.

The story started with the May 4th issue. The story is that a science teacher of 23 years was banned from school property after he refused to raise the grade of a student athlete that slept during class. School officials claimed that the teacher was insubordinate for refusing the order and because a teacher is not supposed to use grades as a form of discipline. The parent of the slothful student claims that the fact the kid was a football player had nothing to do with the request to alter his grade. The teacher points out that he has had the same policy in place for ten years that states "students who waste time in class--by sleeping, playing games or engaging in other mindless activities--receive a penalty grade. The penalty can be a zero or half credit depending on the assignment. . . ." This is the first time, according to the article, that the teacher had been pressured to change a grade. There was a hearing scheduled, and he had hired a lawyer. In an interesting note, interesting because it can be revealing, the students actually rallied and made a petition drive in support of the teacher. The teacher noted that he reviews his classroom policies on the first day of class, and the policy has been in place for ten years. One of his students went on to say that "we all know that if you sleep in Doc's class you can get a zero."

In spite of support from much of the community and his students, the board voted 4-1 to fire him. This was reported on May 7th in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It pretty much became a move by the board to save face since they could not have a teacher simply doing what he wanted, even though it was both reasonable and consistent. It is just another example of a school board bowing to a pampered athlete; after all, can it be honestly said that this pressure would have been exerted on the teacher if the student was just your average non-athletic student? The board saw sleeping as a discipline problem, and they claim that grades can't be used as a discipline tool. But it makes more sense, and it seems more apparent that is also an academic issue, but more importantly an issue of work ethic. I would like to ask if any reader out there knows of any workplace that would allow an employee to sleep on the job and then fire the boss or supervisor for calling the employee on it. This kind of behavior would not be tolerated, yet it is the type of behavior that apparently this school is more than willing to overlook for a kid and his parents who apparently think the rules don't apply to them. And in this case, it does send that message: you don't have to be respectful or responsible in class. Go ahead and sleep in class junior, it does not matter whether you participate in class or not, whether you cooperate with your classmates and your teacher. At the end of the day, what matters is that you play football. Is that really the message we want to send our young people?

School is one of the first places where students learn manners and values like being on time, being on task and basic respect and civility. In addition to content knowledge, they learn how to behave in society. Even the students who work in addition to going to school know they can't sleep on their job. Not only is it bad behavior; it is an issue of productivity; you can't work if you are asleep. So, what does this incident teach? For one, as I mentioned, a spoiled kid can simply go to mommy and daddy and complain to get his grade changed because he himself fell asleep in class. He knew about the policy, and he chose to ignore it, but it is ok because he has parents willing to bail him out. Second, we have to look at the parents as well. What message they send their kids? You don't need to respect your teachers. Sure, we claim that we entrust them with your welfare and education while in school, but wink wink, if he does something we don't like, we just go over his head. The principal is really the one in charge anyhow, and if not, there is always the board. Again, does this message translate to later in life for that kid? Probably, odds are he will be goofing off in college as well and maybe his workplace. Why not? He has already been getting that message now. Third, and this is something I have seen first hand, principals are more than willing and able to cut ties to a teacher if it means looking better in front of parents. It does not matter if it is a good teacher. It does not matter he has had a policy in place the principal could have objected to earlier. It does not matter how many students may go out of their way to try to support him. All that matters is that one football player get his grade up so he can continue to play. The result? The school and the rest of students lose a fine educator over some kid who clearly has been led to think he is too special to have rules apply to him. This is just another example of how a good teacher is undermined by a pampered kid with parents who probably have too much time on their hands, a principal catering to them, and a board not wanting to look incompetent, which they did anyhow. I just hope that community remembers this incident when the next election comes around, and I have faith the teacher will likely land a good job someplace else. Schools, except the one that fired him, can always use a good science teacher.

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