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Dear Teacher,

Dear Teacher,

I am writing to you, “using my words,” as I have been taught from time immemorial, to plead my son’s case. So far, I have felt that our communications with you resembled some kind of game for which we were not given the rules. We are trying to get him through a tough time, a tough age, and to help him find his way in school after a series of mistakes on our part. He is not at his best right now, any more than I was in seventh grade; my own brother “checked out” for two years of middle school and grew up to be a doctor and hospital administrator. What you see right now is not his future, or all that he has to offer as a human being, and I guess that it’s our expectation that a teacher of your experience would know that. We are not teacher-bashers, either; I want to make that clear from the start. I was raised by teachers, and my husband works with math and science teachers. Perhaps it is our positive background with your profession that gives us hope that if we can clear things up, if you can see what we see, that you will choose to “teach” this kid, and not “school” him when you have the choice. His fortunes do not hang on a seventh grade science grade, but the erosion of self confidence and motivation that we see is a very high price for him to pay in order for you to be the victor in whatever game we’re playing.

My son tells me that he is having “problems” in your class. I want to tell you, right off the bat, that we don’t believe everything he tells us, and that we are open to hearing your side of things. In fact, we’d like to hear from you. That being said, no matter what he’s done, we are unwilling to concede that he is not worth your time and effort. Convicted and incarcerated felons are educated in prison (as they should be), and he has not possibly done anything worse than the average felon.

He says you will not give him copies of papers that he didn’t receive because he was absent. In one case, he admits that he maybe, probably lost the paper. He tells us that your response to that was to make him sit idle in class for three days while all of the other students engage in a lab project.  He also reports that you asked him if, since he was not doing the lab, he would help a classmate who is not learning to speak English as a second language to write her own lab report. He says that she didn’t understand that he was trying to help her, thought he was trying to copy her papers, and moved away and covered her notes. Finally, he says that after this occurred, you asked him, in front of the class, whether “since he was just sitting there, doing nothing” he would be willing to go to the office to retrieve some papers that you needed. The day before the lab write-ups were due, you finally gave him the necessary packet and told him that  he needed to “get one from somebody and copy it,” to hand in the next day. He asked three friends if he could use their lab reports to complete the lab-based blanks in his packet, and all three reluctantly told him that they couldn’t let him, because they needed to finish their own work before the following day’s due date.

Perhaps he has learned from this that he shouldn’t lose his papers, which is not a bad lesson, although I am not sure that he’s actually learned it. In order to learn this lesson, though, he has missed the opportunity to learn anything related to a major lab project, and will have no chance to recoup that loss. Who won what, here?

We are clear on the fact that teachers are overburdened, under stress, under appreciated. We know that you are faced with behavior problems, refugee students who do not speak English, looming budget cuts, constantly changing state and federal guidelines, pressure for success on standardized tests, absent parents and helicopter parents. We neither expect (or want) you to be the point person for teaching our child manners, English, organizational skills, social norms, or remedial substantive information. All that we ask is that you teach him the year’s content in your subject area, as well as you are able.

You have said yourself that he is a “polite and helpful” boy, which he is. He is also smarter than hell, and has the potential to go places we can’t even imagine. Unfortunately, his finer qualities are currently bundled in the mess that is an adolescent boy. He has made poor choices about friends, and we are making huge efforts to redirect him without falling into the pit of confirming every adolescent’s belief that his parents are clueless, disconnected idiots. This is a monumental job that requires constant reassessment and recalibration. It is kind of like trying to relocate a giant animal with teeth and claws in such a way that it believes it is moving voluntarily; one wrong move and you’re shredded. We also missed the memo when a kid who used to do all of his schoolwork with speed and ease became a kid with piles of homework, no motivation and no discipline. Clearly, we should have instilled the discipline much earlier, making him sit down every day and do something, even if he had already done his homework in school. We falsely trusted that his brains and his charisma would carry him through as they always had, and we are paying the price in arguments over homework undone, lost papers, disorganized binders, missed deadlines and a laissez-faire attitude about school. We admit this mistake, we humble ourselves, and again I ask – if you choose to judge and punish him (and, frankly, our family) rather than offering him a hand, who wins?

I apologize for rambling, but I keep thinking that if I say enough, if I say the right combination of things, my words will open your heart and you will say to yourself “what a great kid! What was I thinking?” Maybe that’s silly, but I wish you could see what we see, and, honestly, what many other adults (not related to him) have seen.

It is probably unnecessary to remind you that adolescence is a tough time, and that boys tend to be behind girls on the maturation curve. I have read several articles lately about how boys have replaced girls as the “underachieving gender,” and as the mother of one of them, that concerns me. I don’t expect bells and whistles in the classroom, and I see the frustration that might come from trying to teach kids who have been raised on video games, sound bytes and instant messages. They are easily bored (particularly boys) and tend to believe that if something is “boring” they are free to dismiss it from their universe. Boys like ours are also hitting adolescence at a time when schools are frantically pressed to prove their worth with tougher standards and more testing. I didn’t do a whole lot in seventh grade; I certainly didn’t have homework every night. The time and space to make some adjustments, to come into some kind of balance within oneself seems to have been sacrificed in the interests of escalating academic pressures. I was, honestly, blown away by the sign in front of the school advertising “Eighth Grade College Night.”

So if we will admit that this child, our child, is currently a “slacker,” that he is probably losing papers and failing to fill out his log, and generally missing the mark in your classroom, will you admit that he is entitled to your care and compassion because you are his teacher? If we admit that he has had sketchy friends, and that he doesn’t yet understand the consequences of blowing off homework, will you meet us half way and acknowledge that we are trying to be good parents and to raise a resilient, kind, intelligent young man? If we admit that he is too easily bored, and needs to work on focus and discipline, can you concede that adolescent boys are no different than they ever were, and that the pressure of rapid-fire mindless entertainment on one side and quickening academic pace on the other could cause problems unrelated to moral turpitude?

Finally, finally, can you see that this is not a bad kid, that he has all the raw materials necessary to become the best kind of adult, and that getting him through this, and to that, will require every adult in his life to make a concerted effort? There is so little to be gained from winning this game; you can defeat him, you can defeat us, and in a year or two you won’t remember us. There is a great deal to be gained from becoming partners, rather than opponents, in the work of shaping a potentially amazing human being.

Best regards,

A Mom

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About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

26 responses »

  1. Move him out of that classroom. Go and sit in the principal’s office until it happens. Take you mother if you have to.

    Reply
    • That may be what happens. There is a hitch in terms of moving him, involving another class and teacher that he loves; we’d have to switch teams entirely, I think, and the cost of losing the great teacher would have to balance the benefit of getting rid of the not-so-great teacher. Thanks for good advice, as always.

      Reply
  2. Wow. I wish I had students with parents who were so aware & clear & – Oh dear. Ann – have you read Helping Kids Help Themselves? Maybe we should send a copy to this teacher.

    The basic premise of HKHT is that all behaviors are based on the following needs: Love, Power, Fun, and Freedom. Those who care should ask: What is missing in his life?? Does he need a signal that he’s loved? does he need some responsibility? Some fun? Some freedom to choose?

    It bothers me that the teacher seems so punative, and seemingly not interested in kids actually learning.

    Once again, the need for an alternative to main-stream public education rears its head. I need to talk with Nicole… 🙂

    Reply
    • You know, I don’t think she sees us as “aware & clear,” I think she sees us as one more set of goddamned uppity know-it-all parents who don’t know how rotten their kid really is, and who want to stick their noses into her job. Honestly, we have only had 2.5 bad teachers in 8 years in East Lansing, and more than 2.5 amazingly caring and gifted ones, so I’m not giving up on public school quite yet…I will check out the book, though. Thanks!

      P.S. I can answer the question: he needs responsibility.

      Reply
      • I have an extra copy if you’d like it. I can give it to Nicole.

        And yes – often responsibility is the key.

        I hope things work out. I’m not anti-public school, 2 of my kids attend a public school. But really, if someone doesn’t want the best for kids, why are they teaching??

    • Lysne – I’d love to borrow the book! I need to give Nicole a book of hers anyway, so we can just have a coffee and book klatch. Thanks!!!!!

      Reply
  3. Ann, I think you should share this piece with the principal. Just ask her to read it and have a meeting. I think it will make the points clear. I really feel for Sam because he is a great kid and these experiences can be really deflating for a kid. Our kids had some very rough times when they were learning outside the US and learned some very harsh lessons in discrimination, anti-Americanism, xenophobia…which came out in several of their classrooms (ironically even in a “faith formation” class). My two bits worth of advice? Nip it in the bud! Don’t retreat. You already know what Sam needs to take responsibility for…ok. But a teacher who is systematically marginalizing your child needs to be called out. Pronto. Take a deep breath and tell it like it is. You are obviously not making excuses for your son. You own up to his own deficiencies. Now it’s time for the teacher to own up to hers.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth, I’m so sorry that happened to your kids, and glad that they had parents motivated to support and help them.

      You know this teacher, and you know the odds that she will own up to her deficiencies. Worth a shot, though.

      Reply
  4. Sounds like someone needs to be punched in the face with a copy of “Teaching with Love and Logic.” (There’s a parent version too for teenagers- VERY helpful I’m told! I love the teachers’ addition!)

    As a teacher, I think your first step should be requesting a parent/teacher meeting about your son. I’ve had parents go to the principal first for something little – not that this is- and felt TOTALLY disrespected. (A child was embarrassed because she got spinach pies and hummus for lunch instead of PB and Js. Matter resolved in 15 minutes, and I was irked that the parents didn’t think I could handle it, which I did.)

    If you don’t feel satisfied in a week, call in the principal and schedule a 3-way meeting.

    Middle school is a tough age, but your son’s lucky that he has a family supporting him. It takes a village, and if a teacher doesn’t feel obligated to be a part of that village she needs to be reminded that it’s the choice she makes every time she walks into her classroom. I have a big sign that says “LOVE THEM MORE” inside the closet door in my classroom. Sounds like she needs one too!

    Good luck!

    Reply
    • I wish Sam had a young, energetic teacher like you for this class. Well, or Mrs. C. (who knows him, and does not believe him to be a felon).

      We would never go to the principal without speaking to the teacher first, and do respect the ability of teachers to manage their own classrooms in most instances. I think maybe we should anonymously drop off a “LOVE THEM MORE” sign.

      Reply
  5. I just browsed through your article and instantly liked the content. I am a teacher myself and I’ve had this kind of problem before.It is enlightening to hear a parent’s part of the story from reading your post here. Thank You

    Reply
    • Thanks – believe me when I say that 9.5 times out of 10, my sympathies are ENTIRELY with the teacher, particularly with this age group.

      Reply
  6. Ann,

    Just kinda hoping the envelope was sealed if Sam had to carry it to his teacher………

    Reply
  7. You could always start naming names…..see?, I’m way too unsubtle, a veritable agent-provocateur. Your way is better, obviously.

    Reply
    • My dear, everyone knows about her. well, not everyone on the internet, but everyone in the school district. She is something of a legend, and I would not be at all surprised to find out that she was pleased to be regarded as “tough.” Many educators confuse that with “good.” The best teachers I’ve ever had (think Marilyn Kesler) have combined rigor and compassion in such a way that I would have walked over hot coals figuring square roots or playing in thumb position, had they given me the nod.

      My way is not better. I am here looking for confirmation that I am wonderful when I could be pursuing a solution to my kid’s problem.

      Reply
      • I loved Ms. Kesler-of course she was working with the crème de la crème of OHS students, but her successes were our successes. I was in band, too. He didn’t compare favorably with Ms. K (she never threw her baton at the tuba player-at least not when I was there).

        You are wonderful. Full stop. 😉

  8. I hope this finds its way to the teacher. I think too many parents don’t care, and it gives those of us who do a bad name. Having said that, I feel bad for teachers that are expected (by uncaring parents) to raise the children in their class.

    When my daughter was 6 or so, her school had an “unplugged” night. where you were not supposed do anything involving tv, radio, video games, etc.
    My child was so upset since this meant she would not be able to watch her alotted 30 minutes of television before bedtime on those days. Though I understand the reasoning for it, I felt like it was unfair to her. We were not a family who abandoned our child to the babysitter television. We ate dinner together every night, we played games every day, we spent time together as a family. It was like she was being punished b/c the school insisted she do this for a grade. I wrote a similar letter to her teacher explaining that she would not be participating, since as a family we actually acted like one.

    anyway, good for you. unfortunately this will not be the 1st teacher that is this way. It will get worse in Highschool!

    Reply
    • Melissa, I wish at least the sentiment would reach her, but I really think she has dismissed us as out-of-touch softies who don’t want to face up to The Truth about our demon offspring. I like your story, and the fact that you stood up for what was best for your child (particularly since the whole assignment was based on a somewhat judgmental plan to fix something that isn’t broken at your house).

      The truth is, partly, that 13-year-old-boys are kind of awful, and require a little finesse. This isn’t the first bad teacher we’ve had, and it won’t be the last. Our job is to juggle all the balls including advocacy, parental responsibility, maintaining the necessary kind of respect for school, and letting him learn that we all have to work with bad teachers and bosses and should have some skills in place. Whew.

      Thanks for reading.

      Reply
      • my 6 year old is now 14.. girls are kind of awful too! i hope they all learn to work with bad teachers and bosses and even friends. Mine just wants to beat them all up right now! every teacher she has ever had “hates” her. She actually “hated” her creative writing teacher last semester. This semester the same teacher is her english teacher and she loves her. (?!) All it took was christmas break! 🙂 wow. Makes me glad i am not a Teen anymore!!!

  9. I had one teacher who didn’t care in fifth grade, whose inattention and disinterest dogged me all the way through high school with unlearned basics that I had to half-teach myself. And I clearly remember the bewilderment of 7th grade, multiple teachers, changing classes, and once again being at the bottom of a sociological totem pole.

    I don’t have any answers for you, but I really feel for poor Sam.

    Reply
    • I believe a lot of that goes on, always has. I had a teacher kind of like that in 2d grade, and my-mother-the-teacher descended on her and made it stop. She never did it again, believing that I should learn to fight my own battles and take my lumps, but she really believed that Mrs. Rolph was destructive. It’s harder to see it that way, though, when the kid in question is not a cute little girl, but a big lug with a deepening voice and the start of a ‘stache.

      But he’ll always be my baby, and I feel sorry for him, too – while wanting to kick his rear end.

      Reply
  10. Great letter. I saw many kids like your son when my daughters were in private school. The school was small enough, and some of the teachers gifted enough, that they could find a way to reach those kids who were extremely bright, but maybe bored, and in need of help with executive function skills.

    Now that I have a fifth grader in public, with a personality similar to your son’s (well, actually she’s like a mini John Waters…), I find it so challenging to do the legwork myself but I’m trying hard to do the necessary things so that middle school won’t be a huge challenge for her. And I’m trying to do this in a Positive way, unlike the teacher you’re writing about…for many kids, punative measures can really backfire. Best of luck, and I’m sure it’ll turn out well in the end!!

    Reply
    • The legwork is EXHAUSTING. I think the positive tack is better, but sometimes,k sometimes I just want to scream. Maybe yor daughter and my son are soul mates……

      Reply
  11. Ann, I didn’t really read properly this article last night so today since its Saturday I am able to read it again.

    If I had parents like you working with me dealing with my bright yet overburdened kids in school I think we could really work something out.

    The thing that often happens is that – what happens in school is just a school matters -despite knowing that we should take some times to call the parents and talk about some students who seem to be slacking off but most times we are too busy to call and not prepared for the hard negotiation part.

    I have had my fair share of experiences dealing with bright but ”lacking focus’ students since last year – I have tried all methods like superfocusing on that particular student alone-trying to help me up by doing the soft talk technique even to the point of drawing out daily activities block for him.

    There was a phase when I gave up on some of them, resorting to the cold war technique aka ignoring and just turning cold shoulders against them due to the sheer frustration and exhaustion at times -but let me reiterate I have never deprived my students off any classroom resources that they deserved.

    But-it came to a point when you felt that you have spent too much time on this particular student and that the fairness scale is already tipping over and you had to pause and put things back in perspective. I had a call from a parent last year practically ”begging” me to stop giving cold shoulder treatment to her son- I cried on the phone talking to her because I was exhausted and I felt sad that the kid had totally misunderstood my intention-I told her that I had nothing personal against her son and that all I wanted was for her son to start thinking on his own and relying on himself to make decisions in his life.

    From trying very hard to ‘fix’ everything for this boy I kept my distance but still giving him the needed motivation and encouragement during lessons. He was struggling with his college entrance English test equivalent to the US SAT -he was clearly struggling but he did make the effort-I told him and the rest of his class that I still have some rooms for surprise as towards the end of the year (last year ) students tend to put more efforts on their studies – the test results came out few months ago and he somehow managed to pass.
    Boy was I proud of him..he did it on his own, without me but when he called he acknowledged the teachers’ contribution-but for me he did it on his own-he wanted to prove that he wasn’t an overdependent young man.

    This year, few week ago I felt I almost fell into the same circle again-expecting too much from students-intervening too much and feeling frustrated too much. But this time around I have students who are better able at communicating their feelings about things including about the way I treat them.

    This time around, I have learned to do my job to the best that I can, not to be halted just because some kids can’t cope, to be compassionate enough to retrace and help these students in anyway that I can BUT most importantly I keep reminding myself that no matter what I do or don’t do, the students I am dealing with are old enough to know the right from wrong, they have pride and dignity and I should not impose my own values and judgment upon them as if that’s the only acceptable way of dealing with their problems.

    This morning while in school when I contemplated on my experience with my students I wrote this on the sticky note on my desk ” I am inclined to believe that these young minds who questions and criticize things around them will some day become the backbone to the solutions needed by this country”.

    Teaching is really a challenging job and any teachers would be so fortunate to have parents like you working together with them to help a child.

    Thank you again Anne

    Reply
    • Thank you for such a thoughtful comment, and for a glimpse into the struggles of a dedicated teacher. What you describe, the weighing and balancing and worrying is what I assume teachers will do – mostly because my own parents were both such good teachers who cared deeply about their students academically and personally. I guess it’s wrong to put any profession on a pedestal, and to assume that all “helpers,” be they nurses, teachers or policemen are natural nurterers.

      Reply

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