Friday, October 23, 2009

Silly Season

Once again, for emphasis, from Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary:

en·abler ( i-'nA-b(&-)l&r) noun : one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior ... by providing excuses or by helping that individual avoid the consequences of such behavior.

We're now in what politicians call "silly season," or what I have called "crazy parent season" here at school. The first marking period is ending, report cards are coming out, and since kids never take September academic work seriously (and only care about their grades after they see their report cards), a lot of them are failing. I'm in the process of sending out notifications to parents of kids who will fail the marking period, after already notifying the parents of those who did not show up for the essay exam on October 15.

I have to say I feel a little bad about burdening my Assistant Principal and the 10th grade Guidance Counselor with stacks upon stacks of letters which I've sent home to parents so far this term. Since I'm giving homework for the first time in years, and the children are (predictably) not doing it, I've had to notify parents of that. I've had to notify them of every failing notebook grade and every chronic behavior or attendance problem; anything at all that the child does or neglects to do that might cause the child's grade to be lower than it otherwise would. Reams of paper and scores of dollars in postage. And why? Because the first words out of the mouths of most parents when they discover that their child failed are, "No one told me!"

This is the typical high school parent's favorite logical fallacy. I wasn't aware that my child was failing, was in danger of failing or was going to fail, therefore he cannot fail and must be given a passing mark. You didn't tell me about it at the time it happened, therefore it didn't happen and any consequences of it must be rendered null and void. It doesn't matter whether or not informing the parent at the time would have made any difference. The first argument a parent will make when they don't like the outcome is that they were not informed of it or its causes in advance.

I've written about this extensively, and I've also repeatedly referenced a story about a parent who insisted, based on the child's word alone, that the child had been in class on the day of an essay exam despite my showing her four separate items of objective proof to the contrary. "If my daughter says she was here, then she was here." Now, apparently, I have another one of these. "My daughter doesn't miss class," was what this one said to me on the phone, demanding "proof" that the child had been absent. Among other grievances, she objected to the fact that I require students to do their work at the time it is assigned, the fact that I write answers and explanations for the homework questions on the blog instead of on each individual student's paper, that they need to read those explanations on their own (which, when I was in school, was called "studying"), that I had made a minor exception to the rule about late homework since she was initially notified, and that I had not given her child the direct personal attention that she deserves. Repeating her child's absurd fabrications as if they were gospel truth, she accused me of being disorganized, sloppy and careless with student work, when the truth and my reputation in this school is the precise opposite. It was one of the most insulting and offensive parent phone calls I've ever received.

It should be noted here that this child not only does very little work; she is one of the most nasty, peevish, reflexively hostile, unpleasant children I've ever had as a student. It's obviously not hard to see why. Narcissism breeds narcissism. Her mother is the worst kind of enabler, one I've rarely seen in New York City but which seem to be growing increasingly commonplace. To paraphrase Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), talking to a parent like this, trying to explain academic policy and the rationale behind it, is like talking to a dining room table. This parent is only interested in an outcome, and won't accept anything other than that outcome or that doesn't lead to that outcome, logic and reason be damned.

Thinking about this parent and some of the things she said has led me to realize something else. As a teacher, I am a public servant. I work for the City of New York and have responsibilities to my employer, my school, my supervisors and my students. This parent, however, and others like her, see me as their personal servant. As a public servant my job is to serve the public, and the best way to do that is to set objective standards and rules by which everyone must abide, treat everyone fairly and honestly, provide the instruction, materials and expertise that all of my students need to succeed, and use impartial, independent judgment to determine whether and how to make exceptions in individual cases. I think I have done that.

This parent, on the other hand, and perhaps understandably, is only concerned about her own child. However, that concern on her part does not create responsibilities on my part. Either this woman sees me as her personal servant, or does not understand the difference between a public servant and a personal servant. I work for the city, but this parent thinks I work for her and her child. She is unable to distinguish the two because, again, she is only interested in an outcome.

I have one more Open School to get through before I'm done with this nonsense for good. Hopefully it'll go smoothly. We'll see.

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