When I was a high school math teacher recently, I would hope that an adult would
come to my room so I'd have a window of opportunity to teach in. Some weeks into the
semester a vice-principal sat in my room, so the students were quiet. She had barely
gotten out the door when they started the incessant complaining, only this time it was
that I'd have to start over from the first day of class. For once they had kept their
mouths shut and understanding took place, but unfortunately they didn't understand that
unless they kept their mouths shut they wouldn't learn anything else.
One afternoon a student from another class came in after school for tutoring. When I
explained what he needed to know in less than five minutes, he looked surprised. "Is
"You mean it's that easy?"
"Oh, Miss. I'm sorry everyone blames you."
For those of you who have children in the public school, I went there hoping to
protect your children from harmful influences in my classroom. I didn't want to assign
seats in case I was putting a good kid next to someone who would have a corrupting
affect on him or her. (Once they started sitting in the same seats from one day to the
next I made the seating chart.) I enforced the dress code regarding modesty as well as I
was able. But there is no protecting of your children. Many girls wore their shirts
with too many buttons unbuttoned, and many guys wore their pants below their hips. It
was a constant correction till I realized its futility. I put a lid on a girl's obscene
gesture, a guy's vile pantomime, some girls passing indecent pictures, and girls who paraded
around like prostitutes as quickly as I could, but I couldn't shield your children. As
I told one mother of a nice, respectful student I had, "Not much learning is going on
and it's like babysitting [(hint hint) Get her out of here]." The mother said "That's what
her English teacher told me last year." Then why don't you get her out of here? I
It was amazing how working at the high school was the key to getting others' stories
that in no way contradict mine. I was shamelessly disrespected by the students. Do you
think that your children are immune to the hostile environment you have them in? Also,
the set-up of hour-and-a-half classes in a windowless room, to learn material they don't
care about that is way over their heads, is not a combination for achievement.
"Education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a bucket" (WB Yeats). I tried
to do that, but it didn't work. I was about to have to break math into unrecognizable
pieces and require them to do mind-numbing worksheets for busy work and "completion
grades." Math has too much cleverness to do that, but in the public schools it is a
necessity. Calculators are offered as a crutch, too, but the cost is the kids don't
have any skill in fractions or concept of distance on the number line. How can they simplify expressions without knowing how to reduce fractions? Without concepts they
just punch in numbers and expect the calculator to give an answer.
I heard about a transaction at a fast food restaurant in which the young cashier
couldn't give the customer two quarters when he gave her $5.06 for a $4.56 bill. When
the manager tried to tell her what to do, she started crying. I know what happened.
First, she doesn't know that a quarter is 25 cents, and second, she can't figure out
anything without a calculator or cash register telling her what the answer is. I heard
of that more than once.
One of the security guards at the school told me how frustrated a student got with
him when he told her it was "a quarter to five" - she didn't know what "a quarter"
meant, or for that matter, how to tell time if it wasn't a digital clock. A girl I
tutored after class didn't know that one-third was less than one or even what one-third
of a cup was.
I plumbed layer after layer of ignorance in my students, but once I became
enlightened to the reason they were so ignorant, I determined not to let them use
calculators till they could do fractions and negative numbers and multiply, divide, and
subtract. At least one was thankful to at last have this gaping hole in his knowledge
filled, but most weren't interested and waited for the day I'd bring out the
calculators. Those who used their own (5-point penalty) flunked galore along with the
rest. The public schools can't be blamed entirely for letting students hang their entire
weight on a calculator saving the day; they can't get them to learn. I was naive enough
to expect that since they passed Algebra 1, they knew how to solve the simplest
equations. Copying, cheating, and completion grades get them through.
Most would not lift a finger to do the work or study, and yet they
blamed me for their not knowing the material. It was my fault, so fix it - but they
wouldn't do their part. One day I said, "What is it with this place?" and a black girl said, "Well, if you
haven't noticed, Mrs. D, most of the school is black, and they don't have good families."
That may be so, but the message needs to get out that they are enslaved again if they chain them to "entitlements."
When people are more responsible for themselves, they are freer as a result. Society is in for a
terrible future if the people demand much and do little. Meanwhile, don't be a bit surprised that schools struggle to meet
I hope I have shown that this problem is deeper than any fix the public schools can
provide. You as a parent are the main educator of your children; don't think that they are
learning anything at school. So you need to be a reader and a learner and a model of a
life-long student. Being involved in the schools on your children's behalf isn't
effective against this scenario. You must do more. Somehow get them out of
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