(Editor's note: This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly. Its tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.)
These next few weeks I have several meetings scheduled. Each time I attend
Many of the meetings are held in a windowless room about the size of my
small kitchen. A table fills half the space with chairs arrayed around it. The room is Spartan with little or no decoration on the walls.
Into this room are gathered one student, his or her parents (sometimes only
one parent), a counselor, and several teachers. Occasionally an administrator drops in.
The counselor is there to lead the discussion. The teachers are there
to “testify” about the realities.
The parents seem to have a variety of motives for joining: they want to hear
from the school about their child’s progress; often they want to ask for help in
motivating their child to do better in school; rarely they want to complain about the way their son or daughter is being treated by teachers or by peers.
I can only guess at what goes on in the mind of the student sitting surrounded by six or more adults commenting on the child’s behavior and motivation.
The counselor/moderator always invites the student to speak first. Each time
this happens I say a silent prayer that the young person will break the mold and say something assertive and candid.
“My grades are lousy because I don’t do any schoolwork,” they might say. “I
don’t do any schoolwork because I don’t like school. It’s boring. I prefer play. My parents, here, are feeding and clothing me and I know they’ll continue to feed and clothe me regardless of how I do in school, so why should I go to all the trouble of writing essays and solving pointless equations when I can play video games instead?”
They don’t say that, of course. Mostly they mumble the apologies and the
vows to do better that they think we adults are seeking.
“Why aren’t you doing your homework, Johnny?” asks the counselor.
“I don’t understand the work,” says Johnny.
“Do you ask for help when you don’t understand?” queries the counselor.
It’s at this point that I really begin to squirm in my chair. My eyes are
generally tracing the grain in the wood of the table. My hands are bunched together between my knees.
The student at this point has generally run out of things to say.
The counselor and the teachers now begin to bring out the explosives: grade
reports that lay out the student’s failings item by item, quiz by quiz, missing
assignments by missing assignment.
Biology test, Oct. 22: grade 14 percent
Math quiz, Nov. 12: grade 54 percent
English homework done: 32 percent
The parents talk about the things they’ve done to try to motivate their child.
The counselor is likely to suggest withholding privileges (no TV after six, no
cellphone) or bribing with rewards.
I don’t dare mention my aversion to this sort of thing since the day I read
Alfie Kohn’s book (Punished by Rewards).
Testing for learning disabilities is a common option that comes up. Maybe
the child has ADHD or is a candidate for Special Education.
I dread this moment. If I remain silent I feel complicit in the inevitable
drugging of some of my students with Ritalin or Adderall.
I want to refer to the old verities: maybe he’s just lazy? Or maybe he sees no
value to school?
These gatherings seldom have a happy ending.
Teachers pledge to change seating arrangements or to offer after-school
tutoring. We all say we’ll give the parents weekly progress updates.
Occasionally one of these gatherings sparks real, positive change; most times
they end up as documentation of failed hopes.
Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive.