Finals week at school. Payback time, as I like to call it. Normally, of course, that’s just a silly little thing to say. This year, rather unfortunately, it seems true.
I am disheartened by the number of students I have who either willingly, or simply through serious neglect, have failed the class. I have never had so many F’s in one semester in my career. The number has been increasing every year, but it plateaued last year and, as I recall, even went down. Kids tried a little harder. I have no less than 10 kids who will fail various classes of mine this semester–all through faults of their own. Not one time mistakes, not a couple of missing assignments–but a pattern of prolonged neglect that is now coming back to nip them.
It’s not just frustrating, it’s sad. This is the part of teaching that isn’t being written about. This is the part that is screaming for serious attention, too. P.J. O’Rourke said it best at a speech he gave in 2008. Why the speech isn’t given more attention, I’ll never know. He said:
“The problem isn’t funding or teachers unions or lack of vouchers or absence of computer equipment in the classroom. The problem is your damned kids.”
That’s the point and he’s right on a lot of levels. Now, P.J.–and I, for that matter, will tell you that teachers unions and lack of vouchers and other things are indeed problems–but they aren’t the problem. It’s time that nonsense ended. And if you’re a conservative who has been espousing it, you need to walk a mile in my shoes. You need to come into a classroom and see what I’m talking about: It’s not the unions.
I’m going to paste here the rest of an unpublished article I’ve written called, “I am Superman.” It was in response to the documentary film called “Waiting for Superman.” I haven’t seen the film. I don’t need to–I know the premise already and while I would like to see the film, it is missing the point. Here’s part of what I wrote:
We’re a nation of entitlements, now. We expect that our children never do anything wrong and when they do, they must have been encouraged to do it by some tenured, unionized teaching thug who wants nothing more than a stiff drink and a cigarette in the break room while writing “F’s” on your child’s paper.
Of course, there are bad teachers. There are also bad lawyers, bad construction workers, bad accountants, bad railroad workers and bad cement mixers. But if your kid wants to learn, wants to put her brain to uses other than thinking up new and shorter acronyms for texting, “the guy sitting next to me is hot. I think he digs me,” she can. So can the guy sitting next to her.
What’s required isn’t some sweeping educational reform or, in Guggenheim’s words, “Superman.” What’s required is that you and your children-and me and mine for that matter-suck it up a little bit and teach the kids about personal responsibility. We haven’t done that very well, at least not to the past few generations, and so we’ve ended up with things like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top.” Well, the fact is, some kids need to be left behind and in that race, some will come in last.
In Jay Matthews’ book, Work Hard, Be Nice, he writes about the founders of the K.I.P.P. schools, the Knowledge is Power Program. Anyone interested in education should read this book. Matthews writes about two young teachers who take kids from the poorest of neighborhoods in the most fragile of homes and help them succeed. How do they do it? What magic do they possess? They demand and model excellence. They stay in the students’ faces and even call them at home, show up on their porches and check on them. Late homework? Not at a K.I.P.P. school. Can’t come to school today? We’ll come to you. What do you need? The teachers model the behavior they want to see-they work hard, so the kids work hard.
Now, you say, that’s the point. Most teachers don’t work hard. Well, no-that’s not true, either. Once again, I cannot speak for everyone, but the teachers I’ve known in 20 years of teaching work very hard indeed. Some of them do nothing but work hard. Some of them don’t do much else. Are there slackers? Of course. Are there teachers who don’t provide good feedback? Sure. When this happens to your child-should you use it as an excuse as to why your child is not successful in his or her pursuits?
Forget Superman. He’s not coming. The very title of the movie is offensive—we need someone to take care of us. We need someone to rescue us. We were once a nation of individualists and pragmatists. We worked hard and taught our children that hard work would be its own reward. We taught them not to look for excuses. Now, we teach them that someone else is to blame for their failings. Now we tell them that it is someone else’s fault that they didn’t succeed. It stands to reason, then, that we would want to blame that monolith of education. Like so many other things, we like to affix blame on someone else; if that someone else is a faceless institution, so much the better.
I’m not running for office. I’m not interested in popularity, so I’ll tell you the Truth. The problem is us. The problem is our kids. The problem is schools have gotten busy with telling them that the earth is warming, that they need to recycle, that equality is the goal and that being better than someone else at something may make them feel bad and you know what? The kids bought it. They believe it. And when our children are 20 years old living on our couches and watching our TV, using our Internet to Facebook (a new verb they’ve learned) their friends about their ennui, we can’t understand why.
If you want to watch a good movie on education—watch Dead Poet’s Society. It’s a film about standing up for yourself. “Boys, the longer you wait to find your own voice, the less likely you are to find it at all,” says Robin Williams as English teacher John Keating. “Thoreau said most men lead lives of quiet desperation. Don’t be resigned to that. Dare to strike out and find new ground.” The essence of the film is to man (or woman) up, take responsibility for your actions, find your voice, stand your ground and bask in the glow of your own reward. It’s also a film about the tragic consequences of what happens when you are unable, unwilling—or afraid to do so.
I’ve got a few years left in my classroom and I still care about it. But come to think of it, I have to stop telling you that I am superman. I’m not-at least not for you. You are your own superman. Your kids can be their own supermen and women, boys and girls, too. And if we lose sight of that, no educational reform will ever bring solace, no politician will ever deliver relief. It’s time we stopped waiting for superman and went about the business of being superman.
So, if you want to tell me that in order to reform education, we need to end the teacher unions, I say look at home schooling-and how it is succeeding. If you want to tell me schools need more money, I say look at Charter schools–less money, more control, more results. I could keep going. The point is this–the quality of students, by and large, has changed and not for the better. Students are more interested in immediate gratification, technological breakthroughs, like iphones, that they see as their right-nevermind that they have no idea how the device works and couldn’t duplicate it if they wanted to, and are looking for the quick and easy way out. I had a student just today who has done almost nothing all semester long ask me how he could get an “A.” I simply laughed.
Yes, our education system is broken-but there is really no need for deep soul searching. As the article above notes–look at the K.I.P.P. schools. They work because they don’t allow excuses-and students who refuse to live up to the expectations are shipped out. The one big fix in education-particularly at the secondary level, would be that very thing: You don’t want to be here? There’s the door. Have a good day.
And that’s all I have to say about that.