Butt Out

“I’m not saying this to be, uh, mean, or disrespectful or anything, but…”

“Just say what you have to say, Kyle.”

It occurs to me that one cannot render an insult or disrespectful remark benign by prefacing it with a qualifying preamble. Today I was instructed to “Butt out” by my partner’s ex. I’d called him to share a conversation I’d had with Sam and her Resource teacher at middle school about a proposal she offered, an alternative to our ongoing at-home conflicts with Sam about her school work.

At the request of my partner, Kevin, I’d stopped by the school during the last period, when Sam was in the Resource room. During this period, Mrs. Green checks to see that she has written down his homework assignments for the day, and to make sure that she has any handouts that have been given in her classes that day (which she’s demonstrated a talent for “losing”). She also reviews her behavior report for the day, and when she gets high marks, she earns coupons that she can redeem for treats, pens, stickers, or other stuff kids like. I went to speak with Mrs. Green because Kevin and I wanted her insight on how we might help Sam help herself.

Sam sat stonily in a chair, jaw set, eyes narrowed and sullen. “She’s not happy with me right now,” said Mrs. Green. She had her behavior report for the day, and it showed that she had not handed in her math homework. Sam had insisted that she had handed in her homework. Or tried to. But she hadn’t followed the teacher’s very clear, simple instructions. The math teacher tells students to take out their homework, then he walks by each student’s desk to note the work’s completion. Sam had taken it upon herself to march to the teacher’s desk and say “Here’s my homework.” According to Mrs. Green, the math teacher told her to return to her seat, and that he would be over shortly to check it. When he arrived at Sam’s desk, she “didn’t have it anymore.” I suppose she just refused to take it back out. I don’t know. So here Sam sat, angry at the world for holding her accountable.

“You appear to be angry,” I said to Sam. “Is that accurate?”

“No,” she said angrily through clenched teeth, “I’m just FRUStrated.”

I was feeling angry. I mean, what the hell? How is it always everyone else’s fault to her? Carefully moderating my tone, speaking slowly and quietly, I told Sam that she would not earn back her privileges (TV and video game time) until we had a good report from her teachers. I said that she was doing good work, but that by not turning it in, she was asking for D’s and F’s, and that she deserves better.

Then Mrs. Green spoke to her. “Are you having a hard time with middle school? It’s hard, isn’t it?”

Sam barely nodded.

“Is that a yes? You know, it’s hard for a lot of kids, and you’re going to be okay.” And she went on to talk to her about taking care of her school responsibilities in pretty much the exact same way that we have been talking to her: plainly and directly. She didn’t like what she had to say, but she seemed to listen.

When I interjected with agreement a point she made, Sam hardened visibly.

“Your parents are doing what all parents do, Sam,” she said. And she talked about her son, about how he had a hard time in school, and about how she constantly asked him about his school work and checked in to make sure he was doing it. “They have to do that,” she told him. “What are you so angry about?”

“Everybody’s always after me, and I just want them to leave me alone.”

“Do you think you can do this by yourself? Do you think you could do your homework and get everything done on your own if they left you alone?”

“Yes.”

“Well, I have an idea we could try. If it’s okay with your dads–and we’ll have to check, it’s up to them–we can try something. Is this okay if I make a suggestion?”

“Yes, of course,” I said.

“For the next week, if your parents say it’s okay, you go home, and they’ll ask you what you have for homework, and you say Science or whatever, and then that’s it. You do the homework and they’re not going to check it. You take care of it all, you’re responsible for getting it all done. And they’re not going to help you, either, unless you ask. You have to ask if you need help. So you get your work done, and they’ll back off, and then when you come to school you have to answer to me. Does that sound like something you want to try?”

Sam nodded and was relaxing visibly.

“You’ll still be responsible,” she said, cautioning her. “You’re not getting any less work, you’re just going to come and answer to me, and I’ll check on you. Would that be okay?”

I said it sounded great to me.

“And you can all just talk about other things for a change, instead of homework. You can actually enjoy each other’s company.”

If this was at all successful, I thought, it’d be a dream come true. I said so.

“If this doesn’t work after a week, we’ll tweak it. Do you know what ‘tweak’ means–we’ll change it a little?”

Sam nodded.

As I left, I thanked Mrs. Green, and she said she hoped she hadn’t overstepped her bounds. I hadn’t felt that at all, and said “I think it’s a great idea, thank you for suggesting it. Thank you.”

So I discussed it with Kevin, who shared my opinion. We will do this. And since Kevin is out of town on business, he asked me to call Kyle and share the plan with him.

Kyle didn’t share our enthusiasm and openness to the idea. He seemed to take it personally. He argued. I could hear his voice shaking. “I am so sick of all these professionals telling me how to raise my kid. I’m so sick of them telling me what to do, and I disagree, and then it turns out that I was right. Sam needs to be held accountable. She just has these fits because she doesn’t want to do the work! And I don’t like what this will teach her, that she doesn’t have to take responsibility…”

“But she will be held accountable. Someone will be checking her work, it’ll just be Mrs. Green instead of us. I see this as a way to possibly ease some of the conflict at home. We’re always fighting with her, it’s always such a struggle to get her to do his work. I think what you need to ask yourself is, are you willing to fight with her like this over school until she’s an adult ready to move out?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Well, we’re not. I do not believe that fighting with her is necessary or constructive. Of course Sam needs to learn to be responsible. She needs to find her own initiative, to do her best on her own, and to get her work done. And by fighting with her all the time, getting angry, and scolding, and punishing all the time, she’s not learning or developing that skill, that initiative. We are providing, through this fighting with her, the motivation to do her work. We give her that motivation in a negative way. I believe that if we back off and let him report to Mrs. Green, that she will fall, and she may not get right back up. But eventually, she will. And she will have done it for herself.” I pointed out, as Mrs. Green did, that we can still check grades online, and we can check in with her teachers. That we still have to sign her practice log for band, and her reading log.

“We’ve already tried this,” he said. “It didn’t work.”

I think he was referring to a period of a few weeks in fifth grade when Kevin stopped checking Sam’s homework, having agreed to allow her to face the consequences with her teacher if things were incomplete or unsatisfactory. I said that was is not the same scenario, that here Sam has a person with whom she checks in three times each day, that she had more support at school this year to help her do this. Furthermore, when her grades are bad, we could still impose consequences.

About here, Kyle looped back to the same arguments he’d already made. I felt I understood where he was coming from, and that he was misunderstanding me or unwilling to listen because he’d already made his mind up that this woman was trying to tell him how to parent. And when I told him that I respectfully disagreed, he told me to butt out. You know, because I’m not a real parent here.

“I need you to know,” I said, “that Kevin and I will do this. I understand that you disagree, and you will do what you must at your house. But Kevin and I have agreed to go with this plan.”

That didn’t go over well. Unable to agree to disagree, Kyle phoned Kevin. By now, he’d arrived to collect Sam, who spends the night with him half the week, and I watched Kyle pace up and down the driveway while yelling at Kevin on the phone.

Late Homework Gets an F

Sam is four weeks into sixth grade, and although her completed work would earn her all A’s and B’s, as of today she has two F’s, two D’s, and two Cs. This is because she has not been turning in her homework. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

We’re stumped as to what to do about it, not sure what the problem is. Since Sam is in honors classes (except for math), some teachers purposely do not ask for homework. Instead, they have a tray or mailbox into which students have been instructed to submit their homework. Sam has consistently failed to do this, even though she says she sees other kids doing it, and even when she’s in a class where the teacher does ask for the homework.

“Why didn’t you turn in your homework?”

“I don’t know. I just didn’t.”

Okay, then. “You understand that although you worked hard on that, you’re not getting credit. You’re getting an F because you couldn’t be bothered to hand your teacher a piece of paper.”

Blank stare.

What now?

And this all leads me to question, once again, the one-size-fits-all education system. I understand the thinking behind setting the expectation that students hand in their homework without asking. Setting the bar high is often a good idea. And I disagree–strongly–that a student should be given an F for not handing in homework right on time. Let me explain.

As I see it, the grading system is intended to be a measure of how well one has learned the material in a specific subject and how well one has performed in the subject. In Sam’s case, she often knows the covered material well, but is struggling with something else: organizational skill, or self-motivation, or personal accountability. So if for whatever reason she fails to turn in her work on time, her grades very rapidly start reflecting those deficiencies rather than her knowledge or skill. Academically, intellectually, Sam belongs with the Honors students. She does well. At the same time, based on her emotional and social skills and her current ability to be self-motivating and hold herself accountable, she fits in a Special Needs category. She’s a hybrid of honors and special ed. I’m sure there are lots of kids like this. So Sam would be ill-served by being placed in classes beneath her academic ability, yet she is failing some classes because of this procedural rule. Her grades, the primary reporting medium of how well she is learning, are inaccurately reflecting her progress because of a behavior that, while important, has no bearing on whether or not she knows her spelling and vocabulary words.

I suspect that for many students, a strict late-homework-means-an-F serves to motivate them, so the policy serves them–it’s good for them. It would have motivated me as a kid. But Sam is not like most kids, and she is not served by this practice. And I appreciate that school teaches a great deal more than the subjects that appear on my stepson’s report card. She’s learning responsibility, study skills, social skills, she’s learning respect, to be on time, to be a part of a community, and so on. She’s learning life skills. But she’s not receiving a Life Skills grade, she’s getting grades in Math and Science. Great. I say let those grades reflect her real ability and progress. Let’s grade her on behavior and timeliness some other way. Bring on the detention and other consequences for late homework, but let her grades for her subjects be based more solely on what she’s learning about those subjects.

To the school’s credit, they’re taking steps to provide Sam more support. As of yesterday, Sam is now on a behavior-monitoring system. She has to carry around a sheet for teachers to sign whether or not she’s participating in class, whether or not she’s come to class prepared, and whether or not she has handed in her homework. It’s only been one day. We sure hope it helps.