Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Teacher's Union

Every so often, we parents find ourselves in a situation with a teacher that is so unbelievable, we ask ourselves, "How on earth does this person keep their job?" It may be because the teacher shows obvious, and progressive signs of mental illness or cognitive impairment; it may be because the teacher is a man with a documented, creepy history of making suggestive comments to pre-pubescent girls; it may be because the teacher cannot speak or write proper English and appears to be a functional illiterate. Whatever the case, we are puzzled that, despite reams of data showing poor performance, and dozens of documented complaints from parents, these teachers still remain.

Ultimately, frustrated parents discover that the reason incompetent or insane teachers can't be fired is due to the fact that they are Tenured, and members of the Teachers Union. Apparently, once a teacher is tenured, short of coming into the school with a gun and opening fire, there is nothing they can do to cause them to be fired.

Naturally, the absolute best way to guarantee bad performance in an employee is to tell them that they can never be fired. Oh, they do get a perfunctionary "evaluation" each year, but its fairly meaningless. If a principal tries to discipline a teacher, the district is met with threats of expensive arbitration and the filing of grievances which could decimate the budgets of cash strapped towns. That's why districts such as mine have decided that its cheaper to pay a toxic teacher to show up every day, have coffee with the janitor, and take naps in his empty classroom, than to subject any more kids to spending time in a classroom with him. Parents are expected to silently accept this situation, and not rock the boat...after all, they have possession of our kids for six hours a day, do we really want to make them all mad?

In this way, the Teachers Union is a lot like the Mafia....the difference being, the Mafia DOES have an honor code, and will not hurt small children. Being "tenured" is kind of like becoming a "made man"...although, in fairness to organized crime organizations, you generally have to work hard for many years and really prove yourself before you become a made man, where as in my district, to become tenured you just have to show up and it happens automatically after three years.

Because principals actually have little to no real power to manage their tenured staff, they tend to react to parent complaints that a teacher is mentally unstable or completely incompetent by acting surprised and concerned; a look they must practice at home in the mirror to be convincing. They usually then say some words to try and placate the distraught parent, pretending that they will actually address the issue with the possibly insane and/or totally incompetent teacher, while silently hoping these parents will pull their child out and go to the local charter school.

What recourse do parents have? The answer is none..unless, of course, they decide to vent their frustration in a blog....

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Teacher Placement

Perhaps the most anxiety producing time of the school year occurs in June, when parents start worrying about next years class and which teacher their child will be assigned to. New parents, especially kindergarten parents, are often blissfully unaware of how much is at stake in the Teacher Placement process...they still naively believe that their child will get a good education regardless of what teacher they end up with. In the case of the Party Moms, they are not really worried about their children learning anything, they are just concerned that their children get a teacher who is "nice" and who "likes them"....."them" being the child AND the mom. But for the Academic Moms, the stakes are high...will our child be in the classroom with the bright, enthusiastic, articulate Mrs. Smith, whose mastery of the curriculum, differentiated instructional style, and passion for teaching ensures our child will learn? Or will our child be assigned to Mrs. Jones, the burnt-out, tired-looking teacher who has been passed around to different schools in the district like a rotten potato, only to land at our school to wait out her last few years until retirement and who may, you suspect, be in the early stages of dementia?

Predictably, the most vulnerable students are the "first timers"...the oldest child, whose parents are new to the system and don't know anything about the teachers. They will always get the bad teacher, because the parents of younger siblings have already been there, done that, and have generally launched a preemptive strike by going to the principal and threatening a scene...excuse me..."making a request"...for the good teacher. Hey, fool me once, shame on you...fool me twice, and my child won't EVER learn his multiplication tables past the fours. The possible exception to this would be the children of Party Moms who have determined that the highly skilled teacher with excellent classroom management ability has been called "mean" by some of the kids because she actually requires them to sit and pay attention...these moms are OK with getting the "bad" teacher, because quite often she lets the kids do whatever they want, won't give homework, and teaches below grade level material so they all feel like geniuses. Since a child's "happiness" is the priority, this arrangement works for Party Moms.

Occasionally parents are lulled into complacency by rumors of retirement or reassignment of the "bad" teacher that prove not to be true, and they fail to make a teacher request. You can see the fallout on the last day of school, when the child comes out with a report card which lists his next years class assignment. Its pretty obvious who got Mrs. Jones....the mom turns white as a sheet, gasps, mumbles, "oh, no, oh no", then begins to weep, softly. She realizes her child is doomed to miss an entire year of instruction, unless the "bad" teacher's confusion reaches the point where she cannot find her way to work. Which is entirely plausible, but probably won't happen soon enough.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Drop Off Procedure

My elementary school has a Drop Off Procedure that is very simple. Parents drive in one way, past the front door of the school, and pull over into an area clearly marked as the "Drop Off Area". There are many signs telling people "No Parking" in the Drop Off Area. If, for any reason, you can't drop off, you can simply pull up a few yards farther, park on the street, and walk your Precious Darling right over to the playground where he or she can line up with their classmates. Pretty simple, huh? So simple, a monkey could do it.

Well, apparently not. Apparently I live in an area of the Northeast where large numbers of parents are either criminally stupid, sociopaths, or both. Because each day, every day, parents either stop directly in front of the front doors of the school, which causes traffic to back up until gridlocked, or they inexplicably park in the drop off area and spend ten minutes with little Caitlin sitting in the car because Princess doesn't want to go line up until her BFF is already in line.

As a result, small children who don't want to be late for school must exit their vehicles and weave between illegally parked SUVs and minivans to reach their line up the case of rain, they must somehow make it to the front door of the building without getting run over. After numerous close calls, where tiny tots were almost run over by impatient drivers trying to escape the gridlock caused by anarchist parents, the PTO decided to ask Principal One for help. I'll just refer to her as Principal One, because we go through a lot of Principals here, so its best not to name don't want to get too attached to them.

Luckily, Principal One immediately responded to this life threatening situation by sending a Strongly Worded Notice home in the children's backpacks, asking parents to please follow the rules. She even went so far as to put a Strongly Worded Message into the School Newsletter outlining Drop Off Procedures. When another small child was nearly backed over by a Ford Expedition, Principal One showed her decisive, take charge leadership style by sending YET ANOTHER Strongly Worded Notice home in the backpacks...only this time the notice was printed on bright orange paper. Thats right....the color paper that indicates "This is a Very Important Notice so you must read it!". Clearly, the impending death of a student had propelled Principal One to take charge of the situation.

When the problems continued, a few parents suggested that it might help if Principal One stood outside during drop off time and enforced the rules by virtue of her authority as Principal of the School, instead of sitting inside in her office and drinking coffee. After all, lives were at stake. Unfortunately, this was not an option, because Principal One's contract clearly defined her duties, which did not include traffic enforcement; and, hey, this is New England, dammit, it can be cold out there in the winter. And finally, do you really expect her to give up her morning coffee? Really?

Several Principals later, the situation had not improved much. I usually walked my kids to school, so I typically only dealt with the drop off problems during inclement weather. Because I have strong feeling about modeling good behavior for children by following rules, and a general policy of not running people over with my car, I tend to get overly emotional when trapped behind a parent who is screwing up drop off. This reached a crisis point one day, as I dropped off my daughter.

As I pulled up to the Drop Off Area, I saw a car parked in front of me. My daughter gets out of the car quickly, says goodby, and is off to school. Meanwhile, another car pulls in behind me, close to my bumper, considerately pulling up to let other cars file into the Drop Off Area. OK, now whats with the guy in front of me? Why isn't his kid getting out of the car?

Another car pulls in behind the car directly behind me. OK, WTF? We are all trapped here now. What is wrong with this guy? I am starting to sweat now, I can feel my blood pressure rising. Seconds seem like hours at this point....I need to get out of here! I haven't even had a cup of coffee! More cars are filing in, creating a traffic jam....I pulled up too close to this idiot to swing out, and I have no room to back up....WTF is WRONG WITH THIS GUY!!!!

I start leaning on the horn, thinking that will get his dice. I am now on the verge of hysteria, pounding on my horn...thats when I see the sticker on his bumper that sends me over the edge.

OMG, this guy has the Jesus Fish bumper sticker. You know, the fish shape with the WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) message inside it? Are you sh*tting me? Thankfully, just as I was about to jump out of my car, the vehicles in back of me manage to manuveur out of the queue, giving me the opportunity to back up and pull out...I double check to make sure I am not running over someones kid, back up a few feet and start to leave. I roll down my window as I pass the Idiot in the car PARKED in the DROP OFF AREA, and start screaming.


And then I drove away. I felt a lot better after that. I never saw that man parked in the drop off area again.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Party Moms vs Academic Moms

One of the first things you notice when you enter the elementary school social scene is that parent alliances clearly involve two major groups of moms....the "Party Moms" and the "Academic Moms".

The Party Moms operate under the basic assumption that elementary school is robbing their children of a happy, carefree childhood by making them sit in a classroom all day and learn about stuff. School is boring, it is stifling their child's joie de vive, and making them unhappy. What do Party Moms want for their children? They want them to be happy, popular, and entertained. A Party Moms goal is to use her PTO involvement to interupt the learning process as much as possible with non-academic field trips, "enrichment" programs, classroom parties, and forced participation in craft projects.

The Academic Moms, in contrast, are driven by a primal fear that weak administrators, unqualified teachers, and a community culture of low standards are conspiring to rob their children of a decent education, thereby dooming them to a lifetime of economic dependency on their parents. What do Academic Moms want? Mostly, they don't want their adult children still living in their finished basement when they are 35.

These two groups are destined to do battle during PTO meetings, where the Academic Moms want to talk about things like failing MCAS scores and curriculum, and the Party Moms want to talk about hosting another after-school party at Roller World, because it would be "so much fun for the kids!". In my experience, the Party Moms always seem to outnumber the Academic Moms at PTO meetings, because most Academic Moms figured out a long time ago that PTO meetings are just three hours of wasted time where Party Moms giggle, share inside jokes, and discuss things like who will bring green cupcakes for the St. Patricks Day Bingo Party!

Because they are outnumbered, the Academic moms opinions during a PTO meeting are completely ignored. This would explain why Academic Moms often seem frustrated, depressed, or like they have been drinking too much. Academic Moms begin a downward spiral of hopelessness that starts in kindergarten and usually tops out in fifth grade, where fifth grade "graduation" parties and celebrations, accompanied by the realization that their child still can't write a coherent paragraph or do long division, contribute to a complete emotional breakdown.

Reduced to a shell of her former self, (that happy, confident woman who sent her smiling child off the his first day of kindergarten really believing that public education works!) the Academic Mom becomes a disaffected, cynical wreck, convinced that retirement is a pipe dream now that her child has wasted his elementary years at a school where failing math and reading scores are as common as the endless parties and distractions promoted by the PTO...Pajama Day, Dress Like Twins Day, Hat day, School Spirit Day, Snack Day, Holiday Store Day, etc.

Meanwhile, the Party Moms, brimming with cheerful confidence, are far too busy planning the next Ice Cream Social to worry about anything.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Dante's Inferno of Parental Involvement

When my children first started school, I was under the naive impression that a "parent teacher organization" existed to support the educational mission of the school, and promote a sense of community.

I was an idiot.

The reality of the PTO is much more complicated; it involves petty bickering, vicious power struggles, forced socialization with people you don't like, and mind-numbing meetings that last for hours, where nothing important is accomplished. The following blog is a hyperbolic dramatization of actual events that have occurred...the names have been changed to prevent PTO officers from tracking me down, lashing me to a basketball hoop in the playground with jump ropes, and setting me on fire; or worse, making my daughter cry.