School is almost out for the year in most of the U.S. Who is more relieved–the students or the teachers?
One teacher I know is a friend of one of my sons, a nice young man, solidly built and serious. My son and he went to college together, and were in the same fraternity. He was on his way to an M.S. and probably a Ph.D. After that he was planning on a big executive job in a chemical or mining company. Then he had a change of heart. About ten years ago he decided he wanted to teach. Now he is a ninth-grade science teacher in a middle-class high school in a middle-class town in New Jersey.
He comes to visit when my son is in town, usually on a spring or summer weekend. After a big lunch we sit around and talk. He’s had a stressful year, he says, very stressful. Besides teaching he headed up a couple of afterschool clubs and acted as the senior-class adviser as well. He helped plan and chaperone the prom.
He says he loves to teach but that the kids are becoming less mature and more apathetic. Yes, the other kids laugh at the couple of students who do not know the name of the president. But they don’t laugh when someone doesn’t know who the vice president or the secretary of state is because too many of them just don’t know.
What are they interested in? Not much, he says, and that’s the trouble. Oh, there are a couple of smart ones and a couple who are bit way-out: the girl whose only goal is to be mistaken for Ashlee Simpson; the boy who is determined to win a scholarship to a top school. But most, he says, just seem to drift. “I don’t think we were like that,” he said to my son. Funny to me that people in their early 30s already feel so bewildered by kids today.
But as trying as he sometimes finds the students, he says, the parents are a lot worse. “I’ve been told by a mother that I was out to get her daughter because I gave her a failing grade. She deserved a failing grade. But the mother only thought I was being personally vindictive.
“I have had parents tell me I am ruining their children’s lives because they won’t get into the college of their choice if I don’t give them an A or B. I have other parents who say I am hurting their children’s self-esteem if I don’t give them a good mark because building up their self-esteem is so important.”
And if kids don’t do their homework, it isn’t their fault; it’s the teacher’s, he says. “They say that all the teachers should get together and make sure we don’t give too much homework as a group. ‘Don’t you talk to each other?’ they ask. ‘You teachers ought to coordinate your assignments,’ I’ve been told.”
He also said that parents try to game the system. If they don’t like how you treat their child, they won’t complain directly to you. They start at the top, first calling the superintendent of schools. If he says talk to the teacher, then they call the assistant superintendent, then the principal. Finally, they get down to talking to the teacher. But if they are not satisfied, they start right in again with the superintendent.
Technology is a problem too. “If a cell phone rings during class, I take the phone away. But then I hear from the parent that he or she had to tell the student something and I had no right to take away his cell-phone or iPod or Blackberry.”
He says technology has gotten him in trouble, too. “Once a student e-mailed me to ask about his grade. I told him that grades would be given out in class the next day. He e-mailed me again and said he had to know. I repeated that he had to wait until tomorrow. He e-mailed again, begging that he had to hear how he had done or he wouldn’t sleep that night. I sent back an e-mail saying I didn’t have time to continue telling him no, I wanted to watch a show, and would give him his mark in class. Big mistake! It was all over school that I would rather watch a television show than discuss a concerned student’s performance.
“Nowadays everyone knows everything in a minute. If there is a problem in a class the first period, every parent knows about it by the second. And the superintendent knows about it by the third.”
Of course, he says, there are bored, burnt-out teachers who have stayed too long. And sometimes, he is sure that parents’ concerns are justified. But overly passive students and overly aggressive parents have combined to make it a tough year.
And yet he says he won’t give it up. He loves teaching too much. The other teachers complain that on open school night, he sounds too enthusiastic–not tough enough.
What does he like so much? The really bright students? The ones so clearly full of potential?
“Not really,” he says. It’s those “a-ha” moments. “When the kids, just ordinary kids, finally understand something I’ve tried to explain. When they get it. And I can see they got it and they can explain it back to me.”
Now he’s off for summer, and he has only one wish for his classes next fall: that both the kids and their parents grow up a little before September.