American society enjoys throwing barbs of criticism and ire at high school teachers. Sadly, few understand just how much energy, emotion, and skill are required to do a decent job. While most of my teaching career was full of moments of inspiration and joy, there are few memories that still sting. Being accused of incompetence is one of them.
Becoming a high school teacher
After a brief stint in the financial services industry, I fled the greedy pit of Wall Street. Upon some reflecting and conversation, I decided to apply my history degrees to a high school teaching job.
An interview and demonstration lesson later, I was hired. I was looking forward to beginning my career in education.
As a student, I studied my teachers and felt that I recognized the characteristics that would propel a teacher to success. I began that September armed with enthusiasm, strict but fair policies, and a willingness to learn from colleagues and from my students.
Those first months were the most arduous of my life. Every day I taught five classes and had prefecting duties. I came home exhausted. I spent my evenings planning lessons and grading homework, exams, quizzes, and essays. I laughed when people would remind me that teachers didn’t teach in the summer. How could we? By the time June came, I collapsed on the couch for two weeks, recovering from the mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion.
But all that work paid off. I immediately commanded respect from my students, and my colleagues knew that I was working hard. Being a lover of organization, I kept intricate records of everything: attendance, behavior issues, homework marks, etc.
Still, some were looking to exploit a new teacher.
A Parent Teacher Conference studded with successes, except…
Parent teacher conferences were scheduled after the first marking period. I was looking forward to seeing the parents of my students. That night was full of anxiety. I wanted to make a nice impression and show that I was on top of my game.
The first two parents I saw that evening were fantastic. Although their sons were struggling, I offered my assessment on how they could improve. I used my records as evidence that formed my recommendations. The parents agreed with me and assured me that their sons would redouble their efforts. This was easy, so I thought.
The third parent I saw changed my night and if I wasn’t careful, could have soured my entire career. I sometimes wonder if actually did. Her son was in my freshman advanced global history class. His main difficulty was not submitting homework. I showed his mother the spotty record. I was not prepared for what happened next.
The mother looked at me and said, “Well, I don’t believe that my son didn’t do homework. Isn’t possible that you misplaced his assignments?” I was stunned. I had spent three months breaking my back, actually grading homework assignments instead of just checking them, recording the marks diligently, and this woman accused me of incompetence?
If I weren’t so stunned I would have been enraged. I stared at her son in disbelief. He averted his eyes from mine knowing the truth of the matter. I responded to his mother that my records were indeed accurate and that if she wanted to pursue the matter further, she should speak to my supervisor. I knew that if I continued the conversation that I could have said something very impolite.
She left my desk but the damage was done. I had seen the dark side of parenting. I had met a mother who enabled her son to get away with lying.
Following that encounter, I redoubled my own efforts at communicating with this student and his mother. Of course, he once again began missing homework assignments. This time, I recorded it and promptly sent and email to his mother. This is what much of teaching has become; a baby sitting service that needs to report every little activity to a demanding parent. This may be appropriate in elementary school, but high schools should be places that expect maturity from students. Still, I knew that this was the only way to deal with this situation. There were no more surprises. She knew that I was onto her and her son.
That night reminded me that even parents couldn’t be implicitly trusted. There used to be an understanding that teachers taught, students worked hard and learned, and parents supported that process. Unfortunately for some parents, the burden is easier placed on the teachers rather than on their own children and perhaps, their own parenting flaws.
I never approached another conference the same. I continued to teach for seven years, but eventually a number of issues collided with one another and I decided to leave the world of high school education.
For all the parents and students out there, I would ask that you think about your actions. Think about what happens when you abdicate your responsibilities. Think of the consequences of being dishonest. And understand that while teachers across this nation are not perfect, many of them work hard and have chosen a profession that does not financially reward them for their efforts. Education is a beautiful profession and vocation. Good teachers need to be supported. And all members of the educational community need to remember a central characteristic key to success and a decent society: honesty.