Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Qualified Warm-and-Fuzzy; update to Let-Him-Fail


On Thursday I sent an email to Connor's principal asking:

Is it reasonable to ask that a teacher let me know before 8 weeks into a term that he is failing a subject

Is it reasonable to request that teachers post their assignments and test dates so I can help my child meet his obligations

Is "sink or swim", or "let him fail" an appropriate approach at this age where he's not intrinsically motivated by the topic and doesn't care if he fails?

That afternoon Connor got off his bus without an assignment he was supposed to have brought home the day before. "Get in the car, we're going to the school to get it." Wailing and gnashing of teeth.

When we walked into the building Ben, the principal, was at the top of the steps preparing to leave. But he seemed delighted to see us and spontaneously invited us into his office for "a chat". Connor went to get the assignment from his teacher while Ben and I got started.

He began to respond to my questions in the email, saying that "contractually, teachers are only required to report at midterm". He quickly added that he thought this was "lame." Before we could get to the substance of my questions Connor returned, and the rest of the conversation was between the two of them.

I like Ben. I think he gets kids, boys at least. I think his manner is respectful, and he is a person who can exude a "yes" vibe, even with a "no" message. I appreciated what he was telling Connor, even if Connor, with a 12-year-old's perspective, could not. Ben understood that much of what he was saying to Connor about choices he's making now affecting his future is lost on him. I liked the way he said it though.

When we left the school I felt better, but not entirely at ease. As I tried to pinpoint my disquiet I realized I'd come away without direct answers to my original three questions.

Subj; Thanks Ben


The Future is definitely too precious to be trusted to the young! It is so hard to talk to a child from adult perspective, and knowing how child-perspective is receiving it ("blah blah blah"), but having to say it anyway. What a gulf.


I get the sense that "let him fail" isn't quite your philosophy?

Thank you again.



The future has to be trusted to the young. We just have to give them a whole lot of support before they take off and spread their wings. The hard part for me is knowing how many blah blah conversations it takes to turn into genuine understanding. It is so different for each kid, and that is great., but it can be tremendously frustrating when they don't see the answer that is right there in front of them. You guys are doing the right thing by keeping him going in the right direction. The alternative is uglier than the discomfort caused by pushing them.

Let them fall is not in my bag of tricks. I am for supporting them in being successful, while balancing that with gradual release of responsibility. Turning more and more over to Connor is the right thing to do, the question is how much support he needs before he takes over the show completely.

Thanks for working so hard to make Connor successful.


I was still bothered...does the "contractual agreement" mean that the answer to my first two questions is no, even if he said the "contractual agreement" is "lame?"

Subj: Recap
To: Ben Principal

I was thinking a little more about our conversation on Thursday, and just wanted to recap it a bit to make sure I'm understanding a few points correctly.

I think we're in agreement that time management is an emerging skill in middle school that is not fully in Connor's mastery yet. In addition to learning math, science, Spanish, he is learning how to keep track of his obligations and pace himself appropriately to do that. He is learning a process, as well as content.

I think the type of thinking this requires doesn't come naturally to him and he'd rather avoid it. I can sympathize, because organization is not my strength either...I can easily get muddled, overwhelmed, and lose track of things.

He's better at this skill than last year, but still requires assistance in managing it. I'm willing to give him that assistance (I don't particularly like it, because, as I said, it's a weakness of mine, but he needs to be properly supported as he develops this skill he'll need for the rest of his life).

To give him that assistance I've had to ask for the assistance of the teachers. I'm very aware that they have a lot of demands on their time, and I've had a feeling that they may feel my requests are excessive. This is why I asked you if it was reasonable to ask if they post their assignments and tests. Otherwise, I feel like I'm dealing with a moving target, if I don't have a clear idea of what Connor needs to do. You and I were just beginning to touch on this subject when Connor came in and the conversation shifted. But what I thought I heard you say is that contractually, the teachers are only required to report on a child's progress (or lack) at midterm. That tells me that it is not contractually “reasonable” to ask for more than this, or to ask you to ask them. Only being required to report at midterm leaves a pretty big gap and I’d hope that a teacher would want to let a parent know there’s a problem well before their contract mandates them to. This wasn’t the case with Ms. Spanish Teacher, or with Mr. Humanities Teacher last year.

My hope is that bolstered by this talk with you, I can work on the Connor end of things. He really is responsive to talks like this, and hopefully we have some momentum. It seems the key element is getting him to record his assignments in his planner. If I can get him to consistently do that piece that’ll help me with having solid knowledge of what he needs to do. And at least tools like Engrade give me a heads-up sooner if things aren’t going well. Hopefully I can build a strategy around this that will resolve this so I don’t need to come back to you.




I agree that Connor seems to be struggling with the organizational aspect of managing his homework without assistance. I think you have taken a good angle in making him check in with you. I think that holding a high standard for him is a good idea, and he will eventually either get it from practicing, or stop fighting it. I am not sure which is the case for Connor, but it is probably a touch of both, as it sounds like the routine is well established both at home and at school, but has not taken on significance to him without extrinsic motivation. In the end he will benefit from having to tackle this issue now, as it is a whole lot harder to have to deal with it in high school or college.

I understand your feelings on being in the dark about student performance. The contract states some base requirements. We have tried hard to go way above that to help communication with parents about grades. I get that you feel that communication did not work for you in the past. It is well within your right to request from a teacher an update on homework and performance in class. I think that at times it can seem like enabling behavior to put it on the teachers. I don't get that impression from what you are saying, just that you need to be on the same page so that you can make sure that Connor is following through on his end. We will try to do our best to support your efforts to help Connor.

I will be checking in with him weekly. I think that knowing we are all looking over his shoulder to make sure he is being successful will help increase his level of work completion. I would put some of this back on Connor. I would let him know what your expectations are and work with him to see what would feel for him like constructive support. He may come up with nothing new, but at least he would feel like you are listening to him. It is a tricky balance with kids his age, as they think a whole lot less of the importance of good study habits than they need to.



I get that you feel that communication did not work for you in the past. It is well within your right to request from a teacher an update on homework and performance in class.

I do not feel that communication did not work for me in the past, it didn't.

I think that I understand now that the odd feeling that we're talking past each other means an indirect answer to my immediate questions. No, I am not reasonable in expecting that a teacher initiate discussion with me if my child isn't doing the work. I can ask for updates periodically, and so that is what I will need to do. Next week is parent-teacher conferences, and I'll see if we can agree on a process for doing this.

In effect, no, it is not reasonable to ask that the teachers post their tests and assignments consistently. They believe they shouldn't have to and that the child should just write it down in their planner each day. I can see the reasoning behind that, a sort of 'tough love' philosophy. So that makes my job a little harder, but I can work around it. Connor was failing Spanish before his teacher signed up with Engrade. Now that she's posting his performance I won't be surprised again. Besides posting performance results, oft-times there are hints of pending assignments. This isn't as solid an information base as teachers posting homework, but it's a source.

Most important is going to be focusing on Connor writing down his assignments each day in class. I've told him that this piece is the responsibility that is solely within his control, and I will be checking his planner each day. I will help him with figuring out what to do with that information--planning, coordinating, and pacing himself toward its accomplishment.

So hopefully we can work around the teacher reluctance with the tools we have. Hopefully I'll have a cooperative, if not altogether willing or enthusiastic partner in Connor.

And I'm glad that let him fail is not in Ben's "bag of tricks".


Aunt Becky said...

Oh man. I don't even know what to say here. I'm sorry. My head is banging against my desk in empathy.

Sheri said...

We have a beautiful online system called, Parent Bridge, where teachers can post assignments, grades, absences, and even when kids are late to class.

Heck, I can check the boys' lunch accounts and see what they bought for lunch that day.

In Parent Bridge, I can look up their standardized test scores, connect to the school's online newsletter, and even email to each of the teachers with questions about assignments, progress, attitude, etc.

I am so thankful to have this resource and also grateful that the teachers use it.

You mentioned a system in your post, Engrade? Does it allow you to do all of these functions?

For the parent of three middle-school kids, it is a godsend.