The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Learning is not attained by chance, it must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence."...  ...Abigail Adams.

Commentary of the Day - September 20, 2008: Great Expectations.  Guest commentary by Susanne Shaphren.

I received a lot of feedback to my recent commentary about the expensive tutors/counselors hired to help boys complete basic tasks like turning in homework.

Each individual who took the time to comment (either through Dr. Shapiro or directly to me) had a theory about why boys couldn't successfully compete with girls.  Some said it was because girls were more eager to please teachers.  Others blamed poverty, poor parenting, and other factors that would seem to apply to children of both genders.  One educator indicated he believed boys completed assignments but didn't care enough to turn them in.  An understandably frustrated woman pointed out a teacher who refused to allow students to turn in homework at the beginning of class.  By the time the bell rang, her grandson was so focused on hurrying to his next class that he often forgot to turn in the assignment!  Several educators complained that students of all ages and both genders came to school completely unprepared to learn (and spent their class time listening to I-pods rather than to the teacher or professor.)

Unfortunately, nobody offered any potential solutions to what appears to be a serious problem except for suggesting that intensive research needed to be done.

Perhaps there's a lesson to be found by looking back in time.  What made students succeed in the years BC (before computers, I-pods, and video games?)  More than just an absence of instant entertainment that most teachers have difficulty competing with, those technology deprived students were sent to school by parents who took the time to make it clear what was expected of them.

By setting clear policies, schools reinforced those expectations.  So did the teachers, who started each year with a reminder of what would be required to succeed.

Those of us who are beginning to forget where we put our keys or cell phones still remember being sent off to our first day of school.  Do these words sound familiar?  "Sit up straight.  Listen to the teacher.  LEARN!"

As I indicated in my earlier commentary, those simple lessons expanded into discussions of taking responsibility for getting up early enough to be dressed and ready in plenty of time to catch the bus.  Just as my brother and I were taught to budget our allowances to last until the next week, we learned to manage time well enough to finish homework assignments and turn them in prior to the deadline.

Students who weren't lucky enough to come to school equipped with this basic understanding of their "jobs" quickly learned what was expected from their teachers.  Failure to perform meant carrying a note home that had to be signed by a parent and returned to prove that a responsible adult had received the message, or a phone call from a teacher, or a concerned notation on a report card, or intervention from a counselor or principal.

The same technology that works against educators today can be used to help them too.  A former neighbor who teaches in the primary grades enlisted her computer genius husband to help her develop a website where parents can find all sorts of general information about what the class is studying, review homework assignments, ensure they're aware of long-range projects, etc.  There's also a link providing parents with security protected access to progress reports on their child (but nobody else's.)

There was a fascinating study done back in the dark ages (when I was in school) that purposely provided teachers with faulty information about the students entering their classes.  Students who tested at genius level, always got good grades, and never ever misbehaved were described as learning disabled, bottom of the class non-achievers, and chronic problem children in terms of behavior.  Researchers painted glowing portraits of the children who truly did have learning/behavior challenges.

At the end of the school year, the majority of students lived up (or down) to the teachers' mistaken expectations.

While the debate rages on as to whether or not there is a genuine gender gap in terms of ability to perform basic tasks of learning and whether or not we should blame a basic lack of parenting skills and a wide range of social problems for a decrease in student performance, may I humbly propose an interesting experiment?

Parents (and grandparents if the parents are too busy to get the job done or if you just want to provide some positive reinforcement,) send your students back to school with a bit of timeless advice.  "Sit up straight.  Listen.  LEARN!"

Teachers and professors, your assignment is to take a leap of faith and believe (or in the spirit of scientific experimentation, pretend to believe) that ALL students regardless of gender and family background CAN succeed.  Invest a bit of time to make it clear exactly what's expected in your classroom.  I-pods, cell phones, and other devices will be turned off.  Students will sit up straight.  Listen.  Complete and turn in homework assignments in a timely fashion.  If your rules (like the teacher who wouldn't permit assignments to be turned in at the beginning of class) might actually discourage turning in assignments, could you try changing the policy to see if it makes a positive difference?

Have a backup plan in place for students who clearly aren't mastering the basic tasks.  How will you contact parents to let them know what's happening and to enlist their help?  Is there assistance available from the administration if parents fail to follow through?

Let's start the school year with great expectations.  I believe students will live up to those expectations and succeed!

2008, Susanne Shaphren.
Susanne Shaphren is a freelance writer from Arizona who publishes both fiction and non-fiction.  She is the daughter of a teacher

The Irascible Professor comments: "Sit up straight.  Listen.  Learn!" might be regarded as hopelessly old fashioned by many of today's teachers.


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© 2008 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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