10/14/2012

CRYPTIC VOICE MAIL: DETENTION AND FAILURE

I got a curious voice mail just a few minutes ago from a "Blocked Number".   It SOUNDS like the person was trying to say, "You eight detention-failed me last year."   I'm not sure what that's supposed to mean, but if you have my number, "mystery caller", you might also know I'm on Facebook, or you might know I have a blog.   So let's clear up a few things, about detention and failure....

First of all, I DO assign detention to my students, usually for gross academic negligence rather than misconduct.   I usually start by assigning detention at lunch ("Study Hall"), and I expect my students will arrive within ten minutes of the lunch bell to serve it, with or without lunch.   I allow students to eat in my room during lunch, and I also provide them something to do that gives them an opportunity to raise their grade, which is typically disastrous by the time I assign Study Hall. 
 
Now, students can decide for themselves whether this is a punishment or an opportunity, and their attitude about Study Hall will no doubt have an effect on whether or not this intervention will prove helpful.   Frankly,  as a personal matter I'm more interested in their choices than their feelings.   If they feel motivated by having the opportunity to raise their grade, and they make the choice to take their work seriously and complete it, that's great.   If they simply think they are being punished, and their only motivation is to do whatever they have to do to avoid future punishment of the same sort, then the outcome is likely the same:   that is, they make the choice to take their work seriously and complete it.   I'm focused on the outcome, not the kid's emotional journey.   If they hate my guts but do what they need to do to be successful, that's all that I care about.

That may seem a little harsh, but the reality is that if the kid is assigned Study Hall, they have established a pattern of indifference or hostility to education, and I've done some research on the kid in question.   I've typically got a couple of test scores in the books, I have their current and previous year's grades in the system to peruse, and there is usually some interesting entries in their behavioral file.   What I typically discover is that the problems I have with them are not problems just for me, or just for the science curriculum, but long-standing problems that are largely a reflection of the student's choices, and what choices have been tolerated in the past.

There's a line of defense that I've heard dozens of times every year of my teaching career, usually from exasperated teachers and administrators who are drawing a line about what they are willing to do with a particularly difficult student who has already exhausted the usual remedies.   It goes something like this: "The student has the right to fail."   It's the public school version of that old saying about assuaging a horse's thirst.   All we can do is lead our little chargers to the trough of education.   We can't actually force them to drink much if they aren't thirsty for knowledge.

So, yes, the student has the right to fail, Lord knows we can't force them to care and actually do the work needed to pass their classes.    I tell the students that they have the right to fail, if they so choose.   But, unlike some of my colleagues, I add the following:   as their teacher, I not only have the right, but I have the moral obligation to make that choice as difficult as I can.

So, let's suppose that the student doesn't attend Study Hall as I direct, and their parent or guardian won't excuse that absence.   In that case, the student is defiant.   I'll assign them after-school detention, which is strictly punishment, and that will bring the matter to administration's attention.  And then I'll call the home, and give the parent an earful.   And then I'll (firmly) assign Study Hall again.   At this point, the student will usually attend.   Those who make a different choice typically don't last much longer with me, or with the public schools.

From time to time, I'll have a parent who won't support Study Hall even after signing a contract at the beginning of the course where they stipulated they would support it.   This is a bit trickier, but in general these cowards will do anything to avoid further conflict with their kid, and since I won't budge, they'll move the kid out of my class, convinced (incorrectly) that I am somehow the problem, rather than their coddled spawn.   Again, I care more about their choices than their feelings, and the result is the same:  the kid who won't work, who won't respond to discipline, they end up self-selecting out of my class one way or the other.

Now, it would be a mistake to think that I don't have other strategies to motivate students.   I do, and after nearly fifteen years of teaching, I know what will work for me and what won't work.   Some kids are going to need more motivation than an occasional Study Hall.   For those kids, I will offer Saturday School.   This is another opportunity, only longer and more grating on the student's sense of their freedom.   Unlike Study Hall at lunch, which I assign as I see fit, I will enlist the parent's support before I assign it, and will expect students to complete a permission slip to receive the opportunity.   Most parents, as it turns out, will support this intervention if given sufficient advance warning.

But, whether we are talking about detention or Study Hall, punishment or opportunity, during lunch or in Saturday School, none of these interventions are intended to fail the student.   So, "mystery caller", I have no idea what you mean by "detention-failed".  In fact, I would think it very odd if there was a teacher in the core curriculum who based any part of a student's academic grade on behavioral choices regarding attendance or misconduct.  It would make more sense if you said "test-failed" or "homework-failed" because it is usually specific student lapses on various assessments that set the stage for a failing grade.  

One more thing, "mystery caller":   maybe you were my student, but don't make the mistake of thinking that I, the teacher, failed the student just because you received a failing grade.   If you received a failing grade, it is because YOU failed to earn enough points to pass the course.   It is YOUR choices, not my feelings, that determine the grade you earn.   My feelings are not on the table, and even if they were on the table, most of my students haven't had enough life experience to understand them, much less appreciate them.   You're not getting a rise out of me, no matter how many times you decide to "drunk dial" your old teacher. 

The only reason I'm writing this now is to help my present students connect-the-dots on likely consequences, because my students are entering the critical period where I start assigning, as I like to call them, opportunities.   Perhaps reading some version of this on-line will help them understand how I will handle cases of gross academic negligence.


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