Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Marsi White: Complacence

Regime. Every school has one. I was once a part of one. With every new school year, school politics change like the tides. And I am not just talking about the PTA.

On September 20, 2010, Bill Gates and John Legend appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to try to stir up some politics of their own, regarding the failures of the American school system. The intent of the show was to discuss the new Davis Guggenheim project, Waiting for Superman. The movie documents the reasons parents remove their children from public schools, the financial struggles of keeping them in private schools and the startling consequences of not. The movie also documents students who are unfairly assessed and are denied access to higher quality educational programs based on that assessment. According to Oprah, Waiting for Superman is a movie that will help transform our schools. At minimum, she means to raise awareness that schools are failing and that the system needs to change.

This is not new news. However, I may be more educated than most. My husband and I were both raised by educators, and my husband is an eighth grade science teacher. We have watched trends in education cycle repeatedly, known great teachers and bad and watched our dedicated parents engulf their lives in their jobs. My dad was a district administrator for more than 20 years and school district politics were regular dinner conversation in my house.

Oprah prefaced her show by saying that the discussion and topic were not directed at the good teachers. Even so, the dialogue that followed was one-sided and seemed to be a direct attack on the teachers’ union. In fairness, they quoted Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers. However, Ms. Weingarten was not present for the discussion regarding the flaws in the system that ensued.

My husband and I agree that offering teachers tenure after two years of teaching is an out-dated practice. My husband, an eleven-year veteran, is an excellent middle school science teacher in a middle-class neighborhood close to the U.S. border. There are 1,600 students in his school. He works countless hours and is continually commended by parents, administrators and even the special education department and counselors for his effective strategies with the school’s most challenging students. However, it took him several years to achieve a level of comfort in the classroom conducive to excelling in his craft.

One of the main points of the show was that there is no protection for the child who is placed with a teacher who is not effective. As a parent, I want that protection for my children. As a professional, however, I realize that there has to be time and space for good teachers to learn. I understand that teachers’ union policies breed complacency in some. However, I also think that some teachers are unfairly judged by standards that they cannot possibly meet, based on circumstances and lack of community and administrative support. In an era of budget cuts, if the unions cannot protect the teachers, then who can?

Interestingly enough, the same afternoon that Oprah’s show aired, my husband had a meeting with a parent and a child regarding the child’s grades. The child is failing every academic class and may not have enough credits to pass middle school. The conversation went something like this:

My husband: “Johnny is not getting his work done in class, choosing to socialize and waste time instead of stay on task.”

Mom: “Johnny, why aren’t you getting your work done in class?”

Johnny does not answer and slumps his head down to his chest in a look of defeat.

Mom: “Johnny is just lazy. How much time did you give him to complete the assignment?”

My husband: “I gave him a half-hour to complete the eight-question assignment. He only completed two questions. He chose to talk to his peers the whole time.”

Mom: “Johnny, why did you not get the assignment done? You had plenty of time. Why do you talk so much in class?”

Johnny does not answer again and slumping his head back down to his chest.

Mom: “He is just so lazy. I don’t know what to do. My husband and I both work and are too tired to help him with homework. Besides, he always tells us he has no homework and that everything is fine at school. What can we do?”

My husband: “I understand your frustration. My wife and I both work, as well. What we do is make homework time between 7-8PM. That way our kids know when it is time for school work. And if they have no school work, they can read. You could try to do something like this in your home, working every night with him between 7-8 on math and English, for example, until those subjects are caught up. Then move on to science and history, and so on.”

Mom: “No. No. We are just too busy. Johnny is too busy. That would just not work.”

My husband: “Why, is Johnny in sports or Boy Scouts?”

Mom: “No. He rides his bike around the neighborhood and plays with his friends.”

Johnny does not ever contribute to the conversation, keeping his head down, never answering, never taking responsibility for his actions, allowing his mother to make excuses for him.

Conversations as described above are commonplace, unfortunately. Yet, parent expectation of what teachers and the school need to be providing for their child seems to grow every year. What Oprah’s show failed to recognize is that complacency is a common issue in schools. Certainly, teachers cannot be accountable for the parents’ unwillingness to support their child.

Which leads me to what bothered me the most about this Oprah show: I fear that misguided parents will use the show and the movie as ammunition to blame the teachers for other parents’ lack of accountability. Parents sometimes abuse power when involved with PTA or a school committee. In my children’s school, our PTA has taken a stance on nutrition. Imagine if this same energy was directed toward academic enrichment instead?

In closing: to Oprah, I get the point of your show. Administrators should be able to fire a teacher who fails to perform, like the example of the teacher who repeatedly fell asleep in the classroom during instruction time. The conversation has to start somewhere. However, please give the average, public school teacher, not the charter school teacher, not the private school teacher, a voice. Let’s talk about complacence and how we can fix that. Let’s talk about how we can make the kids learn about accountability. Let’s talk about getting teaching aides back into the classroom and reinstating after school programs aimed at low performing students. Let’s fund some programs that offer support to the average, public school teacher and see what happens.


  1. Hear Hear! Well stated...And now you have me all riled up!

  2. Marsi you are so amazing! Best thing I've read all day! You are so right.