Monday, August 21, 2006

Far-Reaching/ Over-Reaching/ Futilely Gesturing In The Desired Direction

The other day I was strolling through blogs and and came across this line: "Proactive parents are the single most valid predictor of academic success." Single most valid predictor especially stuck with me. Even though I almost know better, I wrote a response that made a lot of people unhappy and made this blog's sometime-commenter Lori J. jump in with a far more reasoned and nuanced application of my position. I was later called "ignorant," "stupid," a "demagogue," "insincere," and it was implied that my pre-natal experiences were extra-terrestrial in origin. I was also called "clever," but as it immediately preceded "insincere," I used my knowledge of context clues to ascertain it was, at best, a backhanded compliment. The flow of comments can be read here.

When I wrote this: "As a teacher, I am the single most valid predictor of my student's success; It is my work, my approach, my ability to motivate and reinforce that will cause a student to grow; except in the most extreme instances, what I and the other adults at my school do will matter more than the host of factors parents and families bring with them;" I did not mean to trivialize the role of parents in shaping their children's identity and values, nor did I mean to brush aside the very real challenges poverty and violence pose to those teachers who truly wish to educate all young people.

I did mean that Teddy Ballgame went into every at-bat thinking he was gonna rip one down the line. I did mean that Don DeLillo expects every sentence to stick to your ribs like the mightiest of oatmeals. And I did mean that maybe there's something wrong with us if we can't go into every classroom, look at every kid, and expect to bring about significant academic gains. I'm not saying that's not scary as hell, but on some level, I wonder how you can do this job and not think that. I wonder how you can view yourself and your work as such a contingent thing, as so dependent and potentially futile.

Then I go to work and we're doing the Jaguar Jump Summer Academy, targeting 200 of the lowest-achieving 7th and 8th graders, and my math colleagues are teaching multiplication and the computative difference between + and x. It's important work, and slow-going, and D. comes up all excited because he mastered the 4s, (which was, I think, Thursday's objective) and I give him the fist-pound but walk away sad because how did this happen? How many people decided he was too angry or too fatherless to take the time with? This is my every year start-of-school malaise and anger when the incoming kids stumble over from their elementaries, six years of school behind them, lacking knowledge of their times tables or the ability to decode. It's expected, but still, how many times over are those decisions made by educators who have no right to decide who gets the help they need and who lacks the perceived home support or "model minority" status to be successful?

No doubt there are a myriad of factors capable of impacting student achievement, but it's a slippery slope from reason to excuse, and a young person without the skills to be successful is still a young person without skills. That kid still represents tragedy and someone's failure, no matter where the fingers point.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:18 PM  
Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...


I think I call you a provocateur--it sounds much more mysterious, exotic even. Anyway, you keep writing and I'll keep reading; I think you're one of the best in the edu-blogging world and someone who would be a blast to work with...Scooby Doo!! Zoinks!!!

4:57 PM  
Blogger pseudostoops said...

I love it when you agitate.

6:44 AM  
Blogger posthipchick said...

So I have given this a lot of thought, and this is what I have determined:

Essentially, kids (students) want to learn. They need someone to believe in them. It can be a teacher, or it can be a parent, or it can be a mentor.

I think that in your experience, you, as a teacher, have been that person for many of your students.

Other people, who are involved parents, have been that person for their child.

I don't think it matters who it is, as long as it is someone.

Make sense?

12:49 PM  
Blogger leyla said...

parents are important because they might be the most consisent presence in that child's life. sure "teacher" can be consistent in that kids will always be surrounded by them so long as they stay in school, but it obviously isn't the same teacher.

you wrote once about a former student who made siginificant gains in your class and then moved on to high school and began getting into a lot of trouble. some of the people who talk about parents or guardians as the most crucial agents in the life or education or a child might be thinking of those kind of examples.

but your point is well taken. there is a danger of turning the parent card into an excuse. i think that parents need to be constantly talked about though. despite all of the conditions of poverty or joblessness, there needs to be a constant moral and societal expectation of parents and families to step it up. schools are trying to bridge the language and communication cap. it's a collective effort to include parents, but no real excuse can be made for the majority of parents in a certain community to disengage. the progress of that community RELIES on their engagement and expecting anything less is patronizing as f*ck.

10:18 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Essentially, kids (students) want to learn. They need someone to believe in them.

They'd probably want someone able to teach them effectively instead or as well.

3:54 PM  
Blogger TMAO said...

Hi Leyla (congrats on the nuptials)

Orginally I was writing and thinking less about the formation of the whole person and more about the process of teaching and learning -- to the extent those things can be separated. See, the kid I wrote about that you mentioned, if we subscribed to the beliefs of the people who called me "ignorant" and "insincere," that kid never would've learned in the first place. They would've seen multi-generation gang membership, poverty, history of incarceration, and a parent with a terminal illness, and made the decision that he lacked the support to be successful. While he did need more support in making better life choices, he was STILL able to learn. That's my point.

I like what you said about patronizing families. I think there is an assumption among those who live/work/think with and about low-income families that there is an inherent broken-ness there. That there is the necessity of fixing. It's been my experience that it's not about fixing, it's about making the connection between the school and the values that are already present in the home. Those values are there; it's less about (re)placing them and more about honoring them and combating the negativity that exists in the way society communicates value to poor Black and Brown kids. Are there expections? Sure. Are they highly visible and often sad? Yes, but that just means we need to maintain a premium on critical thought to avoid switching what is the exception and what is the rule.

4:01 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home