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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Mixed Messages for Teachers

Yesterday and today, our high school students were sent to an assembly and informed that the high school would be enforcing a required attendance policy for last semester's grades. Students who had more than 7 unexcused absences would be given a failing grade regardless of the grade the teacher posted for them. This caused a rather big uproar from students who felt that if they had received a passing grade in class, their attendance didn't matter. The fact that they could attend after school or Saturday school tutoring this semester to make up attendance from last semester did little to mollify them.

The casual observer might justifiably wonder why students who had missed so much time in the course of a school semester could have had a passing grade at all. Teachers, especially those in urban high schools, know full well how this can happen: teachers are encouraged, often required, to find ways to pass students by all available means.

This is all a part of the many mixed messages teachers are given by those who set our educational policies. At the same time we are pushed towards finding ways for students to pass and get their credits towards graduation, we are also admonished in countless way to "maintain high standards", "create a climate of excellence", "develop demanding expectations." As much as we would like to feel that high standards and student success are entirely compatible in some ideal sense, the truth is that often these goals are at odds with each other.

For example, suppose I want my students to study one of the plays of Shakespeare, Macbeth for example. I can prepare my students for the play, acquaint them with the arcane language and mystifying conventions. I can have the students read the play individually, in small groups, or as an entire class. Have them act out parts from the play. I can show videos and discuss the actors' interpretations of the characters. However, in the end, if some students wish to sabotoge all my best efforts it does not take much for them to do so.

And here is where the crux of the matter lies: how do I respond. If I truly were to maintain high standards, I would demand that they make some effort to climb the scaffold I have prepared for them. Lacking that, they fail. However, the other message of making it possible for all students to succeed kicks in telling me that I have to give my students "multiple opportunites" to succeed by retaking tests, extending homework deadlines, or giving alternative assignments. If students have be diagnosed with learning disablities, then I must make "modifications" which essentially dumb down the requirements for the unit. High expectations give why to middling realities.

I know how important it is for our students not to fail school, not to fall down on their road to graduation and all the opportunities this opens up for them. For our students, a missing diploma is a one-way ticket to a lifetime of marginal living, grinding poverty, and/or prison. That does not stop me from the constant,nagging guilty feelings I that my standards are lacking as I attempt to create pathways to that all important high school diploma.

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