Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Teaching Time with Bill Maher

This selection from Bill Maher was quite the hot topic in the teachers' lounge at the Morton School today. (For the record, our cushy teachers' lounge does feature a refrigerator and two vending machines. Very posh.) If you haven't read it, click over and read it first before you take a look at my response, which follows.

You know, I get that parents are in tough positions. You have kids with double or triple classroom challenges--ELL, special ed, behavioral/emotional disturbance--and I'm sure that even the most conscientious parents find themselves overwhelmed. And maybe I'm just lucky to deal with a pretty reasonable collection of parents, but most parents I talk to are happy to back me up and really want their kids to be well educated. It pleases me a great deal to hear my students complaining about how "Mom made me go to the library on a Saturday" or "Yo, my dad was beastin' when he saw that vocab quiz." I will simply laugh, with gusto, and exclaim how lucky they are to have such good parents. So I don't have a lot to complain about myself, at least not right now.

But I've taught under circumstances that were very different. I'll never forget a kid who was thrown out of his house because his mother suspected (wrongly) that he was dealing drugs. I've known kids who were shuffled around between distant relatives and foster parents because biological parents were out of the picture. And I knew parents who just didn't care, who either never cared or stopped caring.

Of the children of those apathetic, absent, or cruel parents, you have two types. One is the one we probably all know: the kid who acts out, stares off into space, withdraws, skips school, some combination of all of the above, and eventually drops out. The other is that extraordinary child who perseveres with single-minded dedication. I'm very interested in this type of kid. Where does a kid like that come from? How do they make the right choices when almost everyone around them is making the wrong ones? Does a teacher, or many teachers, or the right school environment, or what make the difference?

I don't know. I remember one child I knew like this, who despite an absent mother and an abusive father (and, to boot, an undiagnosed learning disability) applied herself to school relentlessly. She graduated on time, started college, and got help for her LD. She's doing brilliantly, as I know because I remain in touch with her. I'd love to think that I'm a small part of that girl's success. But the truth is, she came to me with that attitude. Maybe I helped to keep it going. But that's about all. Doesn't she deserve most of the credit for building herself a new life of which she can be proud? Should we really send the message to kids like her that all the credit goes to her teachers?

I've said this before, but that's the ugly flip side of the idea that teachers deserve all the blame for students' failures: Students have no incentive to seek any credit for what they do, which is where much of the credit belongs. Sure, attentive, loving parents, thoughtful teachers, and the intangibles matter. But kids, as I will always remind you, are not stupid. Not at all. If they know their teachers will be blamed for their lack of effort or attentiveness, most of them will stop trying and stop paying attention.

And it works the same way with parents. We're slowly taking away all reason for parents to participate in their children's education. Much of the hard work of brain development happens long before most children ever see a teacher, and before children can be held accountable themselves in any sense. The responsibility to prepare children for school (at least school as we know it today) must lie with the parents. If that responsibility is not fulfilled, teachers are disadvantaged from day one. How is that the fault of teachers?

Much more help for the parents of infants and young children is necessary to the success of our education system. Money for programs directed towards those ends would be much better spent than almost any stopgap measure I can think of down the road.

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