Sunday, April 27, 2008

Professional Question or The Jack Shit Room

I've been asked to return to my school next year. My principal is smitten with me, as she damn well should be. Every time the superintendent or one of his underlings comes by, I get an email asking if she can show them my class. She told me that I was #1 on her list to keep next year. She's set aside the department head position for me down the road (and I have decided to accept that offer).

So, for better or worse, I've tied my fortunes to my current building for the next few years at least.

This leads me to this question.

I'm failing about 30% of my students in Sophomore Lit. I am not outside the pale on this...about 25% of our sophomores fail English (and History and Math too, by the way). Take away the honors kids (who are skimmed off the top and who I don't teach), and my 30% is actually a tad low.

We're not talking about close calls here, either. A good chunk of these are below 40%. Many are absent for between 10 and 50 days in a 90-day semester. They quit easily. I don't mind that they're unskilled...I do mind that absolutely no work ever comes in, even when we do it in class.

It's worth pointing out that I have no problems with my junior class. They sometimes take assignments off, but I'm failing fewer of them, and the ones that are skipping the work at least have the decency to be embarrassed about it.

But with the sophomores, the Bartlebys in the group dominate the culture. Homework almost never happens, and even in-class work is a stretch for a significant minority.

To put it another way, school has become a place where these kids come to not do any work.

I hate that. I hate it more than I hate the kids who are discipline problems, more even than the kid who cussed at me. It's offensive to me. I know it has nothing to do with me. Still, at some level, I take it personally.

But it's a part of the culture at my school.

I've got one kid who has done nothing all year long. His grade is down to about 10%. When I make simple requests like "Get out a piece of paper," he doesn't. I took him outside the other day, and he said "I'm not being disruptive, so why are you bothering me?" The message: He can get away with doing jack shit in other rooms as long as he's not a discipline problem.

I've cajoled. I've joked. I've extended deadlines. I've offered help repeatedly. I've adjusted curriculum. Nothing seems to be changing. I have a batch of kids who seem to be looking at their watches, waiting to turn 16 so they can drop out.

I talk to my colleagues who have dealt with this for longer than I have. One bit of repeated advice: "Don't overdo it. You can't care about their education more than they do."

I get where that comes from, but I think I have to reject that advice. If I'm any good at this, it's because I care. Any "solution" to the problem that calls on me to be less caring is not an acceptable solution. So I'm stuck throwing myself against the brick wall.

In a related story, we're working on our School Improvement Plan for next year.

There's exactly one area to improve, as I see it. Work ethic. If we improve that, we improve college acceptance, discipline, attendance, the precious state test scores, and just about everything else worth improving. I even think it'd break down the gender and racial disparities in achievement. Work has no gender or color.

I even got a plan from the teacher next door.

We have a plan in place for discipline problems. If a student is popping off and being disruptive, we can send that kid away. There's a room set aside for them to sit out of everybody's way. I seldom send kids there, but it's something the kids know about.

We need another room for kids who haven't done the work.

I'll grant that there are some pragmatic and logistical concerns to work through. Let's set those aside for a second and say why I think this is a good idea.

Although the gym is probably the only room large enough at this point, if a kid shows up and hasn't done the work, particularly if it's a repeat violator, I think we need to send them away. Over time, they'd get sick of it and start doing their schoolwork.

I want a culture that says "Hey, this is a place where we work. If you don't come with homework, you'll pick up trash in the parking lot, staple assignments together for a teacher, or sit and do the last three assignments. But showing up and doing nothing is not an option."

My assistant principal has nicknamed this proposal "The Jack Shit Room." I like the name.

I think this would work. It's sure better than sitting around pretending it doesn't happen.

Anyway, I thought my problem with Bartlebys was common enough that it would be all over the suggestions for the School Improvement Plan. Not so much.

I saw a lot of complaints about iPods and cell phones. I saw loads of stuff about racial and gender divides. But everybody was leaving out what, to me, is the painfully obvious underlying problem of work ethic. I don't think that my school is the Titanic, but I do think that these other problems are proverbial deck chair rearrangement.

Totally, totally baffled. I respect my colleagues, but I just don't understand this.

Anyhow, I will leave off with this question...

That Bartleby who does absolutely nothing in my room every day...what positives are gained from keeping him/her in my room? It's bad for me, bad for him/her, and bad for everybody else in the room. Now that I've tried every trick in my book, and just about everybody else in past years have tried and failed as surely as I am, why should he/she continue to take up valuable oxygen in my room?

I have a finite amount of energy, and these non-workers suck it right out of me. I want to teach for another 24 years, but this--the despair of it all- harms my chances of getting that far.

Can't we try the Jack Shit Room for a while, and if that doesn't work, admit that the status quo of high school isn't working out for this kid, and go to plan B?


tommyspoon said...

...what positives are gained from keeping him/her in my room?

From where I sit, none. I often prayed that the Bartlebys that populated more than a few of my HS classes were removed.

It's a question of quantity versus quality, isn't it? And while we may want both in the long-term, we may have to settle for one or the other in the short-term. By focusing on quality in the short-term, you may have a chance to change the climate of the school and reduce the number of Bartlebys in the long-term.

And allow me to speak to your ego for just a moment and state the following in the clearest voice that I can: You are not responsible for someone else's lack of desire to learn. Period. Each Bartleby comes with their own baggage and their reasons for being a Bartleby are as varied as sands on the beach. If you cannot motivate them, the fault lies with them and not you. You will be tempted to think otherwise -- don't.

TeacherRefPoet said...

The issue isn't that I blame myself for their lack of motivation. It's more an issue of this: At what point (if any) is it ethical for me to let the Bartlebys fail and focus my time, attention, and energy on kids who will actually use all three of those assets to improve? I can't do feels like punting on a kid. But when I look at it from a cold, logical, mathematical perspective, ignoring my Bartlebys may be the most effective way to maximize my energy and my students' overall potential. I don't think I'm constitutionally capable of doing this...but the question still gnaws at me. Would this be an ethical (or even sensible, or even GOOD) thing to do?

tommyspoon said...

Maybe YOU can't, but the SCHOOL should. This has to be enforced from the top-down and vigorously backed up by the administration. You may find it easier to live with such a policy if everyone has to abide by it.

And allow me to plead for the other students who say nothing in the face of Bartlebys: please get them out of here!

Your words:

I want a culture that says "Hey, this is a place where we work. If you don't come with homework, you'll pick up trash in the parking lot, staple assignments together for a teacher, or sit and do the last three assignments. But showing up and doing nothing is not an option."

Culture is not the values of a single person; it's made up by a collective set of values.