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.