February 02, 2006

Where is the students' work ethic?

This is from a response to one of my posts on another website:

Could it be that students hate school because they are expected to do things they may not like? Well tough, life is full of doing things you may not like. Don't like school in the morning? Well what makes you so different from generations of others students who had to get up early to get to school? Are you going to fill out a job application with the statement "will only work afternoon shift?" My toughest class (full of boys on probation for various deeds) doesn't like my class because I won't let them cuss! Am I then supposed to start wringing my hands and wonder how I can accommodate them so that school doesn't suck? Everybody talks about raising standards, and about how students will rise to the level of our expectations, but when it comes to behaviors, nobody wants to just tell them "show up on time, stay awake, keep quiet, and learn something."


Finals week is always a tense time of frustration, late nights, and rattled nerves. Teachers are busy grading first semester projects while students cram for finals and pray for high scores. In my multimedia courses the students finish each semester with a major project due before the final. I returned the scored project on the day of the final after the students evaluate ALL of their peer's projects to compare their own work. It's a long two hours. I also give the students their semester grade report upon completion of their final. I ask them to check it over and double check my computation. Teachers make mistakes, and I'm no exception. There are usually one or two students who find a numeric typo and I am able to make adjustments before I start to bubble.

The students I am most concerned with during this time are the D-/F kids. If they are at 58% I work like crazy to try and help them get over the 60% hump. If they stay at 58% then they receive no credit for the semester. I know that other teachers might say "too bad," and that's ok with me. But I always want to make sure that the reason the pupil is at 58% and not 61% is not because of my error. Unfortunately, these D-/F kids often do not assert themselves in the checks and balance process. Sadly, too many of them simply accept the 58%, the fact that they will fail and receive no credit, and move on without making any effort to at least check the numbers. It makes me crazy. I literally have to go to some of these folks and ask them if there is any complete but yet un-submitted work in their possession that they might want to turn in late-late. Some do, some don't. Even today I had a kid with 56% going into the final not show up for class. With the final he would have 60.1%. He eventually arrived late (Yes, I gave him the final anyway).

But what really makes me nutso is the A-/B+ kids who grade monger, hounding me until they get the A when their effort and performance is not "A" worthy. Not the students who during the course or the semester genuinely want to improve themselves with extra credit, or extended assignments. I love those kids. But the ones who wait until grades are completed, and then complain. Or suddenly "discover" a missing assignment they "thought" they turned in. This of course occurs after already reviewing grades in class every 3-4 weeks. I had three students verbally attack me yesterday because their "B's" were not "A's". Why do students think that is acceptable behavior? Could it be TV?

The reason my students don't get better grades is because they don't work hard enough to earn better grades. That's it, end of story. The three "B" students did not have perfect attendance and had not turned in their completed work on time every time. Plus the quality of their work was not up to par. The grade they received was the grade they earned through their level of commitment and work. I think the problem is that many kids don't understand or value work and certainly not the value and the rewards of working hard. Perhaps I don't see more of that because I don't teach AP core courses. But my course name is followed by CP (college prep) and satisfies the Art requirement for the University of California. It's not for slackers. And yet, perhaps because it's an elective the kids don't anticipate having to work hard. Wrong! It was even worse in my advanced multimedia course. Once I handed out grades on Tuesday (and out of 30 kids there were only 6 "A"s) some of the "B"s went crazy as if they were entitled to an "A" just because they showed up semi-regularly and turned in mediocre work occasionally. What gives?

I know that my parents wanted a better life for me, so they tried to give me a better life than the one they had lived as kids. My dad was born in 1937 my mom in 1942 so they grew up during a time of war and then post-war prosperity. Not quite "baby-boomers" both my parents worked and my maternal grandmother lived with us making sure my sister and I got fed regularly and off to school. It was a good life. Better than most I think. Most importantly my parents taught me how to work hard. Not only through example but also through opportunity I learned what it looked and felt like to work for and earn what I received. Now as a parent of four great kids I am trying to instill the same values and work ethic into my own children. But it's not easy. Our lifestyle is not "normal" for Southern California. We live in an area that is beautiful but inconvenient. My kids have chores, a weekly schedule and a fixed bedtime. It doesn't always work, and there are plenty of obstacles to overcome, but my wife and I are committed to raising our children in a way that teaches them the value of work and the importance of stewardship.

I don't mean to be judgmental or critical of parents or parenting in general. It's much, much harder to be a parent than a teacher. But I often wonder as I spend 6 hours a day with other people's children just what exactly the kids are being taught at home. I also wonder what service or disservice we in public education are doing for these kids when we just pass them along. My efforts to get those D-/F kids over the 60% hump may be doing more bad than good. How can anyone learn the value of hard work if they are never really required to work hard? With all of our modern conveniences relieving us of many mundane tasks we lose opportunities that use to require us to work, and as kids, teach us the value of working. Video games may be the biggest culprit (and I love video games). Today you don't even have to go outside and play to go outside and play. Unbelievable. Sometimes it's more fun to play a football game virtually then to actually go out and play football. So long as that is true, and I see more and more kids, especially boys doing exactly that, kids are going to continue to miss out on learning experiences vital to their futures as productive members of our society.

As teachers, our job is to stand in the gap for our students. Parents send us their beloved angels after having prepared them as well as the parents can. We pick up wherever the parents leave off and try our best to carry the children forward. One of the difficulties inherit in our jobs is the broad range of student backgrounds we are required to work with. Seems an impossible task when you try and quantify it. But that's what we do. If our pupils lack an appropriate work ethic when they walk through our doors, then it is our responsibility to teach them how to work. The kids may not like it, they may moan, complain and rebel, but teaching people to work is teachers' work and our contribution to our world.

Please post your comments below.


  1. I just wrote with a similar topic in mind.

    By the way, thanks for the linkage!

  2. We teachers are trapped inside our own metaphors so we can't see the forest for the trees. We are the functionaries of a system that is designed to suppress learning while pretending to promote it. Don't let that surprise you. Here's my partial list of similar contradictions: 1. Religion promotes separation from Spirit; 2. Defense system makes world dangerous; 3. Health Care System makes people sick; 4. Entertainment Industry promotes boredom; 5. Lawyers and judges are crooked; 6. Immigration Policy encourages Illegal Immigration.
    I could go on here all day, but anyway, get the picture?
    Ask yourself this question, how many students in your school site are passionate about learning? Now, do you really think that what is wrong is the children?