When Parents Choose NOT to Conform and Help Their Children

When I was a classroom teacher there were always parents who could not or would not conform to the basic rudiments of organization and being a back up support to their child. Part of it was the parent lacked education and was disorganized in their own life, part of it was living a complicated life with multiple jobs and then there were the parent(s) who for whatever reason had the resources, where with all and time and refused to conform as if my asking them to play a role in their child’s education was one step too far (they brought them into this world – apparently this was their entire job in their world view).

Not amazingly, the most impoverished children had  parents who tried the hardest as they realized the difference an education would make for their child. These particular parents would have sold a kidney if it would help their child. The kids of these particular parents had the message loud and clear – you must achieve something more than your parents.

It was the middle class, upper middle class and upper class (oh yes, I taught at a private school in Santa Monica, CA) who could not be bothered with the drudgery of following through on assignments, making sure the child sought out help from the teacher, hired a tutor, etc. It was these self-same parents who became nag monsters when their child was doing poorly and they wanted me to fix the problem as apparently it would seem teachers are given magic wands with their diplomas.  These parents could not be bothered to attend Back to School night or contact some one for help navigating the on-line school website portal where student agendas and grades were located.

Now, many years later as a tutor, I continue to confront these same issues with the same cast of characters. When I attempt to impose order on chaos, I am right alongside with this year’s flu vaccine……you want the shot except you might be run down for a day, your arm might hurt, you have to schedule it and so forth so you don’t obtain the shot and get virulently (literally and figuratively) angry when you get the flu.  In today’s world, most teachers post assignments on-line and computers can be checked during the course of the day. Teachers are able to respond to e-mails instead of attempting phone tag. So many things are more efficient and yet the same small group of parents can not get it together.

Whether it is fear and/or arrogance, it does not benefit your child to make the choice of not conforming. It teaches your child (without any words) what one type of lazy behavior may be and allows them to follow suit. Trust me, kids know everything – even when you tell a fib.

As a teacher, I often had anywhere from 30-180 students depending on grade level and subjects taught. Following up on one student took all my time. Uncooperative parents meant I did not ever get to sleep as I had to respond to them.  As a tutor, I typically have 20 students at various ages and abilities over different subject areas. In my case, up to 50% of those students have an identified special need which can be ‘on the spectrum Autism’ to full-blown ADHD with missing executive function skills and lack of impulse control, severe dyslexia, visual or aural processing issues, etc.  If I have 10 of those students a week, this means I must rely on the parents of these children to do what I can not do when I am only there once or twice a week.

When the parents of these and my ‘regular’ children choose not to conform and be helpful, I am limited in what I can do. The school is limited in what it can do. Change is NOT what some one else does to your child, rather it is what you create/instill/demonstrate/work on with your child. You have it all backwards if you believe a tutor or teacher has that much control over outcomes for your singular child. You are the person who needs to support the teacher and tutor in making change occur.

Sometimes parenting is difficult. Life is not fair – ever. You may have to give up your favorite TV show or social activity so you can check your child’s homework and review on-line the assignment. You may need to actively engage in studying, which is not homework; Studying is what good students do above and beyond homework. You may need to go to bed late. You may not be able to over schedule your kid and need to think about what can be cut out for the time being to get things back on track. You might need to review Algebra on Khan Academy so you CAN have a conversation with your child about math.

Whatever it is which needs to be done – please do it! This is YOUR child. Help me help your child to learn, succeed and be a productive member of society. Help me achieve the goal of self efficacy for your child by pulling your part. I want to work WITH you…..not alone.

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This disease of COALG and the unfolding on college campuses everywhere.

 Idylls of the King

I found Him in the shining of the stars,
I marked Him in the flowering of His fields,
But in His ways with men I find Him not.
I waged His wars, and now I pass and die.
O me! for why is all around us here
As if some lesser god had made the world,
But had not force to shape it as he would,
Till the High God behold it from beyond,
And enter it, and make it beautiful?
Or else as if the world were wholly fair,
But that these eyes of men are dense and dim,
And have not power to see it as it is:
Perchance, because we see not to the close;—
For I, being simple, thought to work His will,
And have but stricken with the sword in vain;
And all whereon I leaned in wife and friend
Is traitor to my peace, and all my realm
Reels back into the beast, and is no more.
My God, thou hast forgotten me in my death;
Nay—God my Christ—I pass but shall not die.

-Alfred Lord Tennyson

During my childhood and into my adult years,  I was fortunate enough to know a woman named Yvonne Oshiro. She was no ordinary woman. Not by a long shot. She was the mother everyone should have, most especially if you were a child with special needs. Yvonne had a love larger than the sun and hopefulness beyond the rays of said sun. If belief could make something into being, Yvonne would have been the most important and significant alchemist.

What I learned from Yvonne is too large to put into a blog, journal or book. It was the experience of a lifetime in small bites over a long period of time. I learned there are no Children of a Lesser God, there are only children who become adults. Don’t get me wrong, Yvonne did not think every born child was functional. She knew better. Yvonne grew up in Italy bordering on France in a time when surviving winter was an endeavor. Yvonne knew some children were not able to live. She loved them anyways. For the children who did live, Yvonne waged a campaign on ‘the system’ to make sure those children had access, education and human rights/dignity. Each child had a purpose and was going to live a life worthy of dignity.

Throughout my life I have worked with students at various levels. At times I am hopeful a child has  some possibility at living a meaningful life and I know when I wish we had better euthanasia laws in this country. I do not say this with cruelty or any sense of mean spirit. I say it from the point of view of the oath doctors take – do no harm. We can and often do things which are beyond reason in the name of keeping some one alive and we rob them of their dignity while providing them with something we call being alive. I also say this about cancer patients as many people seem to think being alive is the same as living a life.

In the case of children with special needs, they have a purpose beyond the medical establishment and studies surrounding what and how something happened. These children can often learn productive skills and have a life beyond a vegetative state. Many of these children would pass for Children of a Regular God if we understood what we, as a society, needed to do.

Unfortunately, even teachers in Grade K-12 have limited exposure to students with differentiated needs. There is generally a requirement of one or two courses to obtain your credential and the rest of your ‘learning’ is on the fly, in the classroom.  Since my background is speech pathology, I took years of classes in development both pre and post-partum. My learning continued on the fly, in the classroom – it was a different experience. I also had years of Yvonne ‘experience’ and wisdom under my belt.

I now work as a tutor and my students span K-12 and college. Until last year, I only had collegiate students which were ‘normal’ and needed to learn how to study. Supposedly they had the ‘capacity’.

Over the course of Fall of 2013 and Spring 2014, I was contacted by a family to tutor a student at a local private college. The conversation went in fits and bursts. A parent letting me know what the student’s needs were and being frustrated and angry, a phone call regarding navigating the behemoth of the registration department at the private college,  etc. and so forth. In the Spring of 2014, I was asked to tutor the student as things had headed south and the family was hoping there was some way to turn things around. This was a turning point for me. I so wish Yvonne had been alive to give me guidance for what I faced and ways to think about navigating the ‘system’.

All the rules and ways in which ADA works are  upended on college campuses. Colleges and universities have limits on the amount of support/assistance/help they can provide to students who are not ‘normal’. Since college professors outside the education department are not required to know about how students learn and differentiated instruction, I was left trying to explain to various PhD professors what should be done differently for this particular student so they could succeed. None of what I suggested was challenging or difficult and all of it would benefit any other student. It was definitely not ‘routine’ lecturing and assigning essays. Furthermore, who the hell was I (I do not have a PhD) to tell a professor how to do their job. In the process of advocating for a student, I saw the unabashed ugliness of professors  and heads of departments who may be top in their field yet lacking in expertise of sharing the power of their knowledge. It was horrifying to be condescended to by professors as a tutor when both of us should have the goal of helping students learn. The hands of the director in student services (students with special needs) were also tied and the registrars office made things much more complicated and less streamlined than necessary. By time all was said and done, the student was severely penalized on a number of fronts. I was penalized by not being able to help the student. I was brought on to late to unravel a mess  even the best knitter would call something worse than frogging.

Whether the student did or did not succeed, whether the student could have succeeded without a tutor and support is a discussion for a different day. What is at hand is the very elemental idea of providing a student with the pieces in place to succeed.  A college education at a private university should not be cobbled together from duct tape and baling wire not even provided by the registrar or dean of the school.

When a college or university looks to accept a student, one of the elements under consideration is whether this student has the capacity to persist and finish their studies so they may obtain a degree. At this particular university, the student was not allowed to enroll in the fall as they had to prove they could handle 3 + classes at a time (full-time status) instead of the one or two the student had been taking at community college previously to meet undergraduate requirements. Since this had not been explained until ‘after the fact’ to the student or parents or me, it was an unfortunate delay. The student was then ‘registered’ into classes by the registrar and put in classes with professors least likely to be willing to work with the student to help them succeed. In point of fact, some of the professors pointed out the student ‘seemed’ normal and did not understand why they might need an extension on a due date or why sentences may not be perfectly written but actually made sense or why doing oral/aural Socratic method would have told the professor everything they needed to know as the student had a challenge writing. I do not actually think there were more things this university could have done to make the student uncomfortable and to feel hopeless.

Instead of doing the task at hand of educating a student, this university did everything as obstructive and not conducive to learning as was possible. This was not the end.

I was subsequently referred to another parent and student new at the university for Fall 2014. The student was not given the help and support on day one to meet their needs. They actually changed classes the second week of school which created a large obstacle which has not been entirely overcome at this time. The professor(s) from the same department as last year’s grief, did not learn a thing so they have made things entirely difficult.  One of the issues is the professors need to go off on tangents during lecture which is incredibly challenging for this student who has processing issues. I have seen the notes from the note taker SELECTED by the professor……they are an outline. This particular student needs more than an outline.

It is unclear what the professor (HOD) is trying to prove – they can make  a student so miserable they will leave the campus, they will make the student rue the day they ever thought this subject was important (it is, trust me), they can prove they have a PhD yet lack the substance of actually being an educator……I could go on and on. I have no clue what motivates this person to think they way they do about education.

What I do know and what I think is important would be classes on college campuses for students who need more TIME.

Some students would actually benefit from one class stretching two terms. It may be a student who is a parent, going back to college and they work full-time. They can not commit 20 hours a week and do well and have the information matter in their education. If they had two terms, they could succeed, do well and actually learn something.  It might be a student with needs for differentiated instruction. We have different high schools around the country which have block scheduling and students can have two hours a day of Algebra for one term or they can have one hour a day for two terms. Both situations fit different students. Selecting one over the other is a fancy way of selecting which students succeed…..I don’t think I need to elaborate.

No, college is not high school. Yes, we should figure out how to educate more students. What is wrong with helping students succeed if they need more time, better notes, oral/aural discourse instead of writing a paper, books on tape, etc.? What is it I am missing which makes educating the ‘not normal’ students so wrong? Would we deny a returning service member the assistance to succeed? Yes – we do that all around the country. College campuses should be beyond needing to ‘see the disability’ to serve it and yet we do it to those who would benefit so much from an education and in turn benefit our community and country.  What is it we fear so much we can not actually do what is right/correct?

Somehow something seems fishy if students are accepted to a private university and actually set up to fail. It reeks of…….making money. Children of a lesser God  seems to be the way I would describe people who see money as more important than education.

Not my monkey and definitely not my circus to follow or lead.

My family roots are from Poland and Russia – the area where the demarcation changed so often there are no clear and specific maps which can identify whether I am actually of Russian or Polish extraction. This knowledge helped me to  understand how the following phrase came into being:  Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy . Literally it means not my circus and not my monkey. Figuratively it means ‘not my problem’. It was from the part of the world where no one knew, on an hour to hour, day to day basis what was indeed going on. 

For a long time I believed many things in education were my problem (fault) as I had worked for a charter school and they encouraged carrying the burden of guilt on ones back, with scaffolding if necessary. The reality was the folks at said charter school were no better at managing the problems than anyone at a regular public school.  Is This Working? – This American Life on NPR, put together a piece which demonstrated the not so subtle issues of learning and behavior. Charter schools, if they function at all, function for a very thin strand of students and do not do anything different for the rest than a public school with caring and concerned teachers as well as involved parents.  It is amazing to look at what money has bought and not delivered on – the rate of college graduation for the groupings of students most in need of an education has not changed in any noticeable increment since the advent of charter schools……

I began to realize over time ‘my problem’ was to show up, do 150% of whatever I needed to do and follow through to make sure what I did stuck.  The rest of the problem was up to students and their parents/guardians since I only saw students a couple hours a day when in the classroom and once or twice a week when tutoring. All those other hours were with other people who had control over what was going on in the child’s world – learning, behavior, etc.

Over sufficient time, I learned I did not need to fear  telling students or parents the truth-what they needed to hear.  It served no one if I was afraid to tell the truth and tried to modify and shape behavior with no real goals/outcomes. The worst was when I felt desperate. Once I began to lay everything out and clarify how/why things work, I started to notice people self selected and my student load in tutoring changed.

My load went from people who could afford me and the nuance of ‘having a tutor’ to the people who understood and valued what a tutor did – at any price. I can be found tutoring for free or in exchange for an ethnic food cooking lesson as all I am giving up is my time. For the student, I am making a huge difference. These immigrant families seemed to better understand the American Dream than most Americans.

The parents and students who were ‘on board’ actually changed and grew and learned and developed while everyone else was just happy to ‘have a tutor’. The more I stuck to my guns, the better things went. I was able to excise ‘those with little will and low commitment’ to connect with those who gave it their all. This system was especially effective with SPED students and parents.

Where I used to merely grin and bear at, I found myself being happy, fulfilled and enjoying everything I did. I found out what I did even had a name – Telling Truth to Power. I was not fearful to tell the truth since I knew it actually mattered and to not tell the truth, while it seems like a kindness, is actually mean.

I recently took a tutoring job to see if there could be reasonable success with online tutoring at a rate of 1:4. The students were 3+ years below grade level in math. What I found out was the parents who understood the concept got on board. The parents who had been making excuses over the years (hence students being far below grade level) and chose not to get on board were frustrated when I made them and their child accountable. There was no specific way to get buy in. There were many ways to get excuses.  It always hurts to hear the truth although amazingly, the truth is what sets us free.

There have rarely been  monkeys and the circus I attend is Cirque de Soleil.  I still don’t know my ethnicity.

Logic Applied……nothing new under the sun.

I have thumbed through Drug Topics magazine forever. My father was a pharmacist; He read the magazine and left it lying around. It was something we discussed as he thought, when I was in high school, I might wish to try out the profession. My father suggested I join the Air Force (he had been drafted Army). All those years ago I just did not feel compelled to study so much chemistry, although in retrospect I wish I had. Biochemistry/biotechnology is the ‘new-new’ thing of my lifetime.

Despite my father trying to convince me of serving my country and obtaining a stellar education via the Air Force, I took a different path. I kept with the science and medicine type themes, earning a BA in Speech Pathology (after leaving nursing right at the beginning of clinicals). I so wanted and needed to see positive outcomes, I left speech pathology for education. My head and heart told me I could apply what I learned as an undergrad and help many students do well. Neuro, learning, behavioral outcomes and more were what motivated me. Watching people slowly be overtaken by declining health, descending into  the depths of hell with the many types of brain damage nature provides (organic and via car accidents, etc.), I had to leave speech pathology.  I went on to be a Peace Corps Volunteer.

My father pursued an advanced  degree in public administration as he foresaw the Kaiser Permanente model to be the future. My father had worked for Kaiser way, way back. He re-invented himself and did things he loved, including working as a consulting pharmacist. He did chart reviews, he   spoke with community members and educated them on everything from how to read up on the medicines they were taking to understanding the difference between a cure and something which treats a symptom (antibiotics vs. other stuff). My father worked with the Red Cross. He wanted to be part of the re-trenching of pharmacy tech programs (more on this in following paragraphs) so he taught pharmacy tech with the INTENTION of getting students into pharmacy school – which he did accomplish with quite a few students.

Education was a great fit for me. I taught for many years – formally, informally, public, charter/public, private, corporate. Each day I always found one ah-ha and it sustained me. I left the classroom/corporate (formal setting) about eight years ago for tutoring and consulting work in ed-tech. The first four to five years were difficult. I was not willing to compete with the shills who promised all parents they could ‘brain train’, teach their child to read, etc. as it was not true. It took awhile to define myself (I was NOT a snake oil salesperson) and clarify there are times when some students do indeed have deficiencies which can not be overcome with what we know currently. I had to admit failure where failure was due, own it and move forward.   From this time period, I  learned how to write tight, effective IEP’s and 504’s. I learned how to have conversations with parents, teachers and admin which actually matter instead of being vague, noncommittal and wishy-washy. I have many accomplishments of which I am thrilled as I have, and continue to, change lives for students and families.

Simultaneously the Silicon Valley folks taught me something completely different – failure was absolutely necessary. Essentially Silicon Valley reiterated what I knew about scientific method. Failure was indeed the answer. Only through failing could you see what you needed to do differently and better.  In Silicon Valley, you are not worth much if you do not take a calculated risk and fail. Confirmation bias is quickly obliterated if you learn to work in and with people from Silicon Valley. I have, by complete accident, had the pleasure to work with some of the brightest talent in Silicon Valley who do and make things which matter. I take calculated risks regularly.

Along the way I obtained my Pharmacy Technician’s License. I did this as I love traveling and living abroad. It gave me hope to know between being a pharmacy tech and tutoring, I could travel, come back to the states, land on both feet and function. Not so. A pharmacy tech license is the equivalent of Gr 9-10 Algebra and chemistry/bio. Everyone told me to cold cock the test (including my father who stated I could do it with one eye covered and a hand behind my back). I was afraid. I took a course. Holy moly. I began to understand some major problems, the least of which is who takes responsibility for what.

Pharmacists created the pharmacy tech program and  never intended for it to be a pathway to pharmacy, dental, med or nursing school. It was meant to alleviate pharmacists of the non-thinking portion of their job. With this in mind, a pharmacy tech is little more sophisticated than working any other repetitive job as the pharmacist still carries the responsibility for the ‘final product’. I know as much about sanitation as I would working in a restaurant and learned more as a science teacher. Since the threshold to train pharmacy techs was so low and the pay little over minimum wage, it did not encourage the right kind of people to come into the program. More often than not, pharmacy techs are underutilized since the program (aside from how the military trains pharmacy techs) is deficient on so many levels.

It could be said the pharmacy tech program in the U.S. is an abysmal failure of everything from logic to creativity to improving healthcare. It failed at launch and has slid downhill ever since.  It was created by pharmacists and  should be re-configured into something valuable, useful and appropriate.

All of this led me to wonder about the article by Jim Plagakis in Drug Topics from September 2014. He addresses the issue of legacy pharmacists, those who are highly paid with no more room to go upward without a career change or pursuing something different. If pharmacists are worried about losing their prestigious place in the dog pile, they should be doing something more akin to what Dr. Atul Gawande does outside the surgical suite. Even though Dr. Gawande has stated over and over he is near or at the top of his game, he finds something new to pursue with excellence on behalf of patients.

Pharmacists have reached the point in time where they need to drop the stance of having ‘earned their keep’ (the equivalent of tenure for teachers) and actually do something above and beyond. Find out what is happening in Silicon Valley regarding ACA (don’t be afraid – there is this amazing place with a med school called Stanford and another place called UCSF with a pharmacy school in the area). Along the way, it would be great if pharmacists thought about improving the pharmacy tech program so they could actually train responsible people looking to pursue a medical career. Create a step-ladder for people to go to pharmacy, medical, nursing and dental school. I would imagine a pre-med student who  worked as a compounding pharmacy tech and was intellectually engaged by the pharmacists would be a shoe in for an outstanding medical program and/or biotech.  According to everything I hear on NPR, we are desperately short of doctors.

Comparing  ‘legacy’ pharmacists to tenured teachers  not only weakens the argument, it begins a strange comparison which benefits neither teachers nor pharmacists. Using the word legacy does nothing to change the connotation. Very few professions in todays 21st Century stay constant. Stagnation or inertia is when some one chooses not to move.

The legacy my father left was very genuine and real. Education was seen not as a mere accomplishment, rather a continuous expectation. One did not stop learning by being ‘done with school’.  He earned the Governor’s Award for Volunteering in IA while he was cycling through various cancer treatments . He volunteered regularly on an exhibit (Iowa Roots, Global Impact: The Life and Legacy of George Washington Carver) which he felt could re-invigorate scientific thinking. Most of all he helped me embrace change as real, necessary and of the utmost importance for succeeding in life.

Keen, Lament, Moan, Plaint and Hand Wringing

The lamentations have begun. I am having a growing personal concern around the way in  which class levels/subject structures and difficulty  are explained to students and their parents – most especially in middle and high school. It seems as though tracking is alive and well – it merely has a new name.  Not only is tracking in existence, it is the way it plays out which is alarming.

In middle school students have certain course work which is essential to high school success. While there is debate over when exactly Algebra needs to be completed the first time, there is no disagreement on the need for multiple exposures. This means a student should have middle school Algebra, high school Algebra and later, college level Algebra. They are NOT different courses. The re-exposure helps students develop the process and reasoning skills inherent in this stage of mathematics.  I have at various times used college level Algebra book problems with middle school students as the students understood the concepts and needed math grinding practice. The kids thought they were ‘cool’ years later, when I ran into some home on college break….well, they realized they had been duped and laughed about it!

Students need to be able to read and summarize, construct a five paragraph essay  (preferably longer and more concise) and know when and how to use a variety of charts, including the Venn Diagram by middle school. At high school, students need to be further applying these skills and developing more in depth study skills.  High school should not be in the business of providing ‘training wheels’.  Rigorous study skills should begin to be developed in Grades 7 and 8, alas, too many parents believe their child is remarkably special and can skate by.

Todays Honors English is remarkably the same as my high school English class years ago. Honors English is one step up from College Prep, which is the baseline to get INTO college and generally speaking, community colleges or state colleges.  College Prep gives students training wheels to get through Honors English.  College Prep is normal, regular English writing, reading, literary analysis, etc. In effect, College Prep is a level up re-do of what should have happened in middle school and did not occur or the student would not be taking it in high school. In other words, College Prep is ‘tracking’ and Honors is for students on their game.

AP English is COLLEGE Level English. It requires a student to  think and perform as a college student. It is imperative students know how to study – which is different in scope and depth from doing assigned homework. AP English is a foundation for getting through the undergrad years. It is not indicative of a smarter student (as the class tends to be sold to students and parents), it is indicative of a student who knows how to study, has high level persistence and is willing to put in the time and energy for the rewards of learning at a higher level and college credit.

Whether it is AP Engish or AP Biology, the underlying premise is the same – know how to study as the training wheels are off and no one is going to give you  more than an outline. A student needs to be able to take control of their learning. This is not the memorizing of facts and reading a chapter from a text book.

Instead of high schools being honest with the product they are trying to sell (remember, schools with both a variety and abundance of AP classes look better), they just keep marketing the product. Not all students have the essential ability to study at a college level by time they are in high school; Most high school students can and should be able to handle the rigors of so called Honors English.

To each and every parent who is led to believe only AP classes are appropriate for their child, I ask them to reframe the question. Do you and your child actually understand what AP means and what is expected for AP credit?  Have you had a frank discussion with your child about what may have to be given up in order to get through an AP class and are they willing to make the sacrifice at this juncture in time? As in college, college level courses require something ‘more’ and giving up an hour of TV may not be the only thing which must go.  Is the cost benefit analysis worthwhile to save on tuition of three units at a university?

Lamenting the need to give up a team practice or some other activity should not be a big deal to survive an AP class as scholar-athletes manage this routine in college for their scholarship. I know many, many high school coaches who would rather a student take an extra afternoon to study and miss a practice than to settle for C grades to ‘make it on the team’.  Notice the grade of C is low enough to get enough people on the team.

Part and parcel of taking an AP class is the fact it is not easy, there are sacrifices and the student has the maturity to deal with this issue. There is nothing wrong with taking Honors English and calling it a day.

There is something terribly wrong with parents who need to hire tutors to teach their child how to write an essay and study at a collegiate level, most especially after 3 months into the school year when the student has a C grade and needs to get it together.  A little thoughtfulness regarding when a student is ready for AP coursework will go a long way in benefitting a child in actually getting something from the  Honors or AP experience besides frustration and anger.

When Price and Toll Are Mutually Exclusive Concepts

As a tutor I face an abundance of conundrums.  I have to make decisions as to whether or not to take a job as each student I tutor, each assignment I work on with a student reflects on me, my credibility, integrity and reputation. There is no price for having integrity and a good reputation, especially if you have a teaching credential.  My teaching credential makes it even more of a challenge when tutoring in areas involving writing as there is the doctrine of academic dishonesty, which is as serious or more than plagiarism.  It is common for me to turn down jobs and recently I have had to specify for English and History tutoring, there needs to be a draft paper completed by student before I will tutor. All of this came about many years ago for me and has recently reared its ugly head in fine form.

Most teachers figure out a way to obtain a ‘writing’ sample of students the first week of school – in all subjects. This is done as a baseline of sorts and also as comparison for future assignments. It helps support your Spidey Sense if a student suddenly writes above their ability.  When I tutor, I ask to see a past assignment(s) so I can understand my student and understand where the gaps are and work with them to master the rubric or expectations of the assignment.  In addition, teachers who have graded thousands upon thousands of papers, have a true sense of something cut and pasted from the internet versus actual student work AND we should know how to ask appropriate questions regarding work quality before we make the shot off the bow of academic dishonesty.   Often times, students in middle school and the start of high school are not aware of what plagiarism and/or academic dishonesty looks like, sounds like or feels like. More often than not the ‘first time’ can be a great learning experience if handled correctly and professionally. If a teacher really has their game on, they can help the student not only overcome the problem, they can be instrumental in helping the student push forward and do their best work.

In addition to the obvious issues of plagiarism and academic integrity, there is something called style and it is not the latest fashion trend.  Style is how each individual writes and is often something akin to a ‘personality’ of the writer or how the writer presents themselves. It is not easy to qualify or quantify and for some it is easy to replicate (Ex: a current author completing a book based on an unfinished transcript/document of a now deceased author – (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/books/review/book-review-the-pale-king-by-david-foster-wallace.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0    and http://nypost.com/2013/08/25/five-new-j-d-salinger-novels-to-be-released-starting-in-2015/) which can, much like a forged painting, cause many problems.   Interestingly though, style is in some ways akin to  ‘quality’ of writing – Can you write a compelling piece of which a bored person will enjoy reading OR will some one just put it down out of boredom?

I have found more often than not, students cheat since they do NOT know better, not the wish to pull one over on a teacher. Some students do indeed pay for essays and there are secret mills which sell all manner of garbage to the highest bidder to submit as their paper.  It is incredibly easy to talk to a student and ascertain they did not write the essay. There is no need to mount a CIA and NSA investigation as simple questions indicate what a student knows or bought.  Some school districts now require students to ‘run’ their essay through some software product which does word count, lexile, sentence analysis and all other manner of  technologically intriguing things to suss out if the paper was indeed written or cut and pasted from various internet sources. Three of my students attend this type of school district.

I never had the joy of cutting and pasting anything other than a quote as I am hell bound to get my specific point across. It is a matter of pride I write my own essays, blogs, papers, etc. I expect the same from students. I will work tirelessly with them to edit, discuss, refine, etc. and at the end of the day, it is theirs. Knowledge can not be bestowed with a magic wand, one must earn it with hard and diligent work. Being as I know a fair enough amount about English and literature for a science major, it is not often I find myself challenged by another teacher for writing a students ‘literary analysis’ paper. In other words, pretty much anyone would never mistake me for an English major or writer.

What  recently happened was not pretty nor was it appropriate. A  teacher  questioned a student I tutor  regarding academic integrity over a literary analysis on ‘Of Mice and Men’ (based upon all manner of selfish reasons to wish the student ill will and no intention of actually being an honors level English teacher).  Said teacher made it clear to student and parents of student I ‘wrote’ the paper as I do not have boundaries for tutoring. This teacher has the foul attitude of letting students know they will not earn an A one moment earlier than she has determined, no matter how well they write as she is the arbiter of all.  Her reputation not only precedes her, it is ill-gotten gains based on her own limited background which does not include anything resembling the hard work of a PhD.  This teacher torments students in Grade 9 Honors English as she is allowed to – she has tenure.  To make matters exceedingly worse than her arrogance and the administrators who support this heresy, is the price of privilege.  This teacher is part of a uniquely interesting school district.

The school district was formed via a community which could not obtain an annexation so they ‘voted’ themselves their own school district – long before charter schools were even a dream. The district operates in much the same fashion as a charter school and is considered a select district. Over the years the number of school age children in the population dropped so they allowed for inter-district transfers. The transfer is meant to keep out anyone who is not white, first and foremost (I looked at the recent data on ethnicity and it is not representative of anyplace else in CA). The second part of this is to force parents and students to be compliant with the whims of the district or their inter-district transfer is somehow magically ‘terminated’ the next year.

Since parents want their children in this school district by inter-district  transfer, they are often willing to accept a degree of  shady behavior and professional ineptitude   by teachers and administrators.  This is where the toll of bad behavior on behalf of the adults who educate children is sometimes greater than the actual price of privilege to attend the district. The exactitude of how the  behavior is meted out is also mainly directed at the inter-district transfers as they are expendable. The English teacher above was motivated as much by her own unhappiness as by the fact of ‘eliminating any challenges to her authority or that of the administration’.

What is truly sad is the student  who was punished in this whole situation. The student is quite intelligent. The student was so frustrated they did not wish to put in their full effort and once they did, viola, it became a nightmare of Stephen King proportion. I know – I was blamed for causing the misconduct. The student was ultimately vindicated, as was I since I would not edit the students most recent paper in order for the teacher to see the waywardness of her claims.

It is not an easy balancing act and I commend the parents who are able to make it work. This includes the parents of SPED students (I tutor one of them) in the district who have had to tolerate teacher(s) not clear on how IEP’s/ 504’s work. The lack of clarity is not due to lack of education, it is due to lack of initiative on behalf of the teacher. No one seems to stand up to these people and they are bullies. They are better bullies than the kids on the playground as they can hide behind the guise of being adults.