Friday, May 30, 2008

Dealing with a difficult parent.

I dutifully returned the call of a parent concerned about her fourteen year old son’s progress in Year 8 English. The previous week, parents had received their child's ‘interim’ reports. Every six weeks, in addition to parent teacher interviews and formal reporting, our school prepares these reports for close to a thousand students. (That's a lot of reporting.)

After telling me she was concerned about her son’s unsatisfactory progress, the call proceeded thus:

Her: My son is only getting Ns in your class.

Me: What are you implying?

At this stage of my career, I’m sick of parents ringing up and thinking they can malign my teaching competence in this way. It’s something I have never done when addressing the teachers of my own kids. It’s simply rude. It’s even more rude given my status within my school and my excellent reputation - no false modesty. But I suppose she’s not to know me from a bar of soap.

Now of course I understand just about the entire psychology of parental investment in their children. Yes, it’s probably an unfathomable body of work, but I’m getting a bit long in the tooth and I know what I know, based on protracted, sometimes excruciating years of experience as a moderately intelligent teacher, and parent of a couple of occasionally ‘ne’er do well’ children to boot. I know how terrible it feels when you know you’ve put in so much as a parent and your kids won’t come to the party and satisfy your parental needs with 'braggable' ENTER scores and virtuosity in the performing arts or rocket science.

I take umbrage at the implication that it is my teaching that is making her boy fail.

This mother assured me that she wasn’t implying anything; she just couldn’t understand why her son was passing in every other teachers’ classes and failing in mine. Again, the castigations.

She wanted more from me, more than the blood I’m already giving.

She was demanding time that I don’t have to spare, given the fact that I’m just about always in the classroom, either teaching, or counselling and consoling year 12 students, or dealing with the occasional recalcitrant who needs a bit of a talking to at the end of a lesson, away from an audience. If I’m not in the classroom, or guarding the yard, I’m in a bleeding hour long meeting after school three afternoons a week. Or on the phone taking shit from caustic parents. I suppose she and her ne’er do well son could catch me for a spot of private tuition after I’ve done my weekly five hours of assessment and correction in bed on a Sunday morning.

The conversation became quite terse:

Her: Well, if you haven’t got the capacity to assist my son…

Me: I beg your pardon. Have you any idea how rude you sound?

But ultimately, despite twenty minutes on the phone, generally biting my tongue and being my political best, I was unable to ameliorate the situation.

And unfortunately, after I hung up the phone I burst into tears of frustration at the unfairness of it all, in front of two of my colleagues, one of whom is only twenty four, a new teacher in the area I coordinate and just embarking on her career. I felt pathetic.

Next day, the parent has followed through with a facetious open email, which borders on harassment, to the school office, which was then forwarded to me and the head of the junior school.

Fortunately, the junior school and year 8 coordinators are well apprised of my abilities as a teacher and have assured me I will not have to communicate with this parent again.

The irony is that it doesn’t matter how many successes I have, it’s these incidents that have the power to overwhelm me; hence the need to vent on a blog that is rarely read, to put it out there to float around unnoticed in the ether forever. But it has more chance of surviving than my volumes of self-absorbed journals, which my daughter, a writer herself, has assured me she will compost as soon as I’m in the nursing home, if not before.

Time for a chardonnay.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sometimes it all falls into place

Today has been a magic day at school. It's good to acknowledge these days. My plans came to fruition.

Since December last year, as I'm sure have many of my colleagues around Melbourne, I've been planning for our VCE students to see a performance of Eagle's Nest Theatre's production of The Crucible.

Big deal, some may say. But I hate organising such events - or 'incursions' as it says on our school's official forward planning form. (Nothing like a raid to get the heart started. ) And I always feel responsible for the success of such ventures. A couple of years ago, I took a group of students to see a performance of Stolen at the Malthouse. Our team of Year 12 English teachers had spent a good six weeks or so battling against our students' racist attitudes prior to the performance. The performance in itself was excellent, but the ensuing Q and A was a disaster. One of the performers 'paid out' somewhat on the non-indigenous audience and it was just the spark our students needed to reignite their racist flames. That young performer perhaps undid in a couple of angry comments - and fair enough - all the effort we'd put in to quell the endemic racism of many of our kids back then. It was really disheartening, and I, as the organiser of the excursion, felt that somehow I'd let the side down.

But today, everything worked, despite the limitations of the space we were able to offer the performers. They basically had to work in our 'theatre', which is really just three converted classrooms, one of which forms an endstage. I'm thinking there must have been twenty actors on that stage, many of whom were lined up, seated, not quite out of sight behind the curtains. There was no special lighting on the stage; no sound effects; no son et lumiere tricks. No, just a group of enthusiastic skilled performers who generally embraced their roles with gusto. The house lights were left on during the performance, which may have assisted with students' behaviour. But I think our kids were seriously engaged.

We've been studying The Crucible since the beginning of term. The students have already completed two pieces of writing on the Context. They've also watched the film. So today, they were generally looking forward to seeing a live performance.

For me, it was extremely rewarding to see about a hundred of our Year 12 kids suspending their disbelief and really getting involved. During the scene where Abigail pretends to see a bird in the rafters, many students stared around in horror to see what all the players were looking at. I even 'teared up' a bit at the poignant ending.

But the greatest part of the entire performance was how I felt about our kids. These students generally have not been exposed to any live performances, other than rock concerts and Big Days Out. They haven't seen any live theatre since an anti-bullying production in Year 8. Yet they were an excellent audience. I think I told one kid to put his foot down off the seat of the kid in front of him, which he did without demur. And the production took the best part of three hours. Our students missed their recess and three quarters of their lunch break, yet they quietly, respectfully watched the entire production. It was terrific to hear the genuine applause as the players took their bows at the end. Furthermore, the actors approached me at the end of the play to tell me our students had been just about the best audience they'd had since they'd been touring the play around the schools. I felt really proud.

Last period I taught - I use the term loosely; I was a bit worn out - one of my year 12 English classes. The students were full of chat about the production, quoting memorable lines and laughing at how they'd all jumped when Abigail started screaming. It was very gratifying for their teacher. Me.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Too old for this??

I've always quite enjoyed disruption in my school day. Others bemoan interruptions to their chemistry classes, their routines. Not I. I welcome little diversions in the order of the school day. Bring on the fire drill! It's a chance to get out in the fresh air and have a break. I like a bit of excitement, like the Year 12 coordinator interrupting my class twice today. It's a different face. Someone else to banter with.

So when the newish principal decided we would alter the arrangement of the school day I thought, what the hey? I've always worked in schools with six 48 - 50 minute periods per day. Change would be good; as good as a holiday.

So this altered timetable was more or less rushed through after about six months serious planning last year. Now it's careful what you wish for.

The new day is possibly killing me. I can feel the future years dropping from my life span. This is the thing. The periods are seventy five minutes long. That's four seventy five minute periods per day. Yes, the students are well and truly getting their 300 minutes of tuition each day, and there's less movement around the school and blah, blah, blah. But when one has first 'three on' it's hell on wheels, especially when one gets an emergency yard duty thrown into the mix, as I did today, and as frequently happens. Today it was morning assembly, Advance Australia Fair and all that, then into class for a 9.05 start. Double year 8, recess yard duty, year 12 after recess, and no break until 1.15. It's crippling me. After lunch I find it difficult to use my spare period effectively because I have that hit-over-the -head-with-a-housebrick feeling. Pity my colleagues with their four-on days. Happily, I'm spared that.

And I've got to do it all over again tomorrow morning.

The other problem is extras. Under the old system, one would rarely get an extra on a five on day. Now, however, most people have an average three periods a day, so when they get an extra, it's a full on day. And seventy five minutes is a long time to be taking an extra.

Oh for some real forward planning.

Monday, April 28, 2008

I hate parent teacher interviews

While I was talking to the first parent, the room started to shift around her. I felt spacey. It was probably the lighting in our school gym where we were all lined up in exam like rows. And the dread of the ordeal facing me. So to focus, I concentrated on her protruding teeth and her badly dyed blonde hair; her eyes were wrinkled around the edges from self-deprecating obsequious smiling.

“How’s her spelling?” she asked. “I can’t understand why she can’t spell. I never had a problem with spelling.”

How many parents tell the teacher – me, or me at ages 21 to 51 – except for that blissful ten years when I taught adults and didn’t have to wade through this necessary shit – what they were like as students? Or they tell their kids off in front of the teacher, as if that will have more effect, or to show that they are serious parents and it’s not their fault that their kid is recalcitrant, or whatever.

I asked Fart Boy, when he made his appointment, how he thought his parents would react if I told them how many times he disrupted the class with his explosive bowels.

“My dad will think it’s hysterical,” he boasted. “He taught me everything I know.” And then I meet mum and dad; middle aged, ordinary people. Fart Boy has preempted anything I might say to his parents. They allude to it. I tell them he says his dad thinks it’s funny. Dad looks embarrassed. Clearly, small conservative bald dad isn’t full of the bravado that his son is.

At my most recent parent teacher day/evening, between one and eight pm, with an hour break, I spoke to forty four families. Mostly the interviews were positive, but three were appalling. How can these ignoramuses possibly think that it serves their kids well if they give the teacher a serve?

They just don’t pay me enough for this torture.

In one interview, this harassed looking thirty something is restraining a struggling toddler on her knee. Another of her children stands quietly, its nose level with the edge of the table. Her daughter, my student, stands quietly behind her mother and father while the woman attacks me because I’ve given her daughter an ‘unsatisfactory’ on her interim report. She challenges every aspect of my teaching, makes me explain all my teaching methodology and then still won’t accept that her child deserved the grade. And she’s shouting and waving her free hand around while the toddler squirms to free itself. The woman is dressed in business clothes. Looks like she’s come straight from work. Her babies are driving her batty and perhaps she feels inadequate because she hasn’t paid enough attention to her daughter’s progress. So I have to pay the price and sit passively and wear her aggression because the customer is always right in these market driven league table days. She even slaps at the sign hanging on the front of the table which says I’m the English coordinator. “Coordinator. Hmmmph!” she says.

Furthermore, what does a kid’s grey unshaven father think will be achieved if he abuses the teacher on the basis of some spurious allegation made by his daughter, possibly to avoid a beating? This unkempt down-at-heel father sits in front of me. Because I’m dazed by the lights and the thirty something families I’ve already interviewed, I don’t immediately perceive his rage. He glares at me. Why have I made an example of his daughter because she didn’t have her text book? What?? That’s not true, I manage, but he’s not listening. A small crowd waits behind him. He’s right up in my face, eyes blazing, lips a thin line. Breathing at me. I tell him I won’t speak to him unless he calms down, which enrages him further. His daughter sits smugly beside him while he explodes. I stand and tell him the interview is over and begin to walk away.

“I demand to see the head-master,” he says. “Where is he? Where is he?”

“It’s a woman,” I say, and begin to walk away but he blocks my path. Meanwhile, my colleague intervenes and tries to direct the man away from the masses of parents witnessing the assault on the hapless teacher.

I head into an office with my heart beating rapidly and steady myself for about twenty seconds before I return to the hall and sit to interview the next parents. The mother immediately puts me at ease.

“It’s all right,” she says. “I understand. I’m a teacher.”