Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

I’m Right, I Presume

Yesterday, an intriguing social media post – a link to an article – offered me the opportunity to adjust my opinion several times in a row. Back and forth, back and forth.

[Ed. note: Curiously, even as I have been writing this post, several of my online friends have been linking to the same article. And most of these people, whom I dearly love, appear to be coming to the conclusion that I didn’t. This sets up opportunity for a glorious and entirely civil debate, I bet.]

The article first showed a photograph of a letter from the principal of an elementary school in Pennsylvania to the father of two of the school’s students. The principal was addressing the student’s three-school-day absence, earlier this month. She wrote:

Dear Mr. and Mrs. [Surname]:

I understand that your family recently took a family vacation. I want you to be aware that the [Town] School District does not recognize family trips as an excused absence, regardless of the activities involved in the trip. The school district is not in the position of overseeing family vacations or evaluating the educational nature of a family trip. The dates that your children were absent were recorded as unexcused. An accumulation of unexcused absences can result in a referral to our attendance officer and a subsequent notice of a violation of the compulsory school attendance law.

Please contact me if you have any questions. Thank you.

Sincerely,

[the principal’s name]”

The letter was probably boilerplate. Not big on the warm milk of human kindness, but it did cover the basics: we do have a policy about this sort of thing, and it’s enough work for us to assess what’s going on inside our own building … without having to figure out whether your family vacation could survive an educational audit, on top of it.

The second thing the article showed was the text of the letter that the students’ father wrote in response to the principal’s – making his case for why he felt the school should make an exception and mark the absences as excused. He had posted the letter on his Facebook page … because that’s what you do nowadays … and had prefaced the post with “So we received this letter from the kids’ school today. Here’s my response. What do you think?”:

Dear Madam Principal,

While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school.

Our children had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that can’t be duplicated in a classroom or read in a book.

In the 3 days of school they missed (which consisted of standardized testing that they could take any time) they learned about dedication, commitment, love, perseverance, overcoming adversity, civic pride, patriotism, American history, culinary arts and physical education.

They watched their father overcome, injury, bad weather, the death of a loved one and many other obstacles to achieve an important personal goal.

They also experienced first-hand the love and support of thousands of others cheering on people with a common goal.

At the marathon, they watched blind runners, runners with prosthetic limbs and debilitating diseases and people running to raise money for great causes run in the most prestigious and historic marathon in the world.

They also paid tribute to the victims of a senseless act of terrorism and learned that no matter what evil may occur, terrorists can not deter the American spirit.

These are things they won’t ever truly learn in the classroom.

In addition our children walked the Freedom Trail, visited the site of the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre and the graves of several signers of the Declaration of Independence.

These are things they WILL learn in school a year or more from now. So in actuality our children are ahead of the game.

They also visited an aquarium, sampled great cuisine and spent many hours of physical activity walking and swimming.

We appreciate the efforts of the wonderful teachers and staff and cherish the education they are receiving at [the name of the] Elementary School. We truly love our school.

But I wouldn’t hesitate to pull them out of school again for an experience like the one they had this past week.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

[the father’s name]”

I admit I had to go back and read it again to grasp that in essence, this Boston trip’s main purpose was so the kids could see their father run the Boston Marathon.

Well, so, okay, a big deal. Yes.

But as so often is the case … well, the problem with us educational types is, we’re always wondering “is there something we could have done, in that situation, to make things work better, more smoothly?”

According to reporting by Philadelphia Magazine, there’s a meeting between the principal and this father scheduled for tomorrow morning. So, we wonder again, what could have been done to make that meeting a little less … chilly … and perhaps a little more cordial, and likely to result in a resolution that everyone could live with?

 

As a feller who’s spent a little time in the education racket, I appreciate parental involvement and encourage parental communication, and I recognize that there are parents and then there are parents.

For every parent that you would like to strangle, there’s one you’d like to honor with a statue on the town green. For every parent that you wish would just once check in with you about how their kid is doing, there’s one that can be described by the relatively new adjective “helicopter”. By and large, we would rather hear from them than not.

I don’t have any way of knowing whether this father had alerted the school to his family’s vacation plans ahead of time. Nor do I know whether he had included a description of all these theoretically educational experiences as part of such a proposal. I wish he had; it might have made a few things easier for all involved. The principal’s letter appears to suggest that the school was caught unawares.

As a feller who’s spent a little time in the education racket, I have experienced several different kinds of principals, too. A few were people you’d genuinely enjoy hanging out with, after hours; most were decent people in a very stressful job. Some were not overly endued with social graces, in print or in person. Hey, there are all kinds. You have to know who you’re dealing with. Writers are told, “know your audience” … and it’s a good plan for most everyone.

The principal’s letter to the family, if it wasn’t copied straight from a template, was at least pretty Vulcan. Just the facts, ma’am … which is odd, since elementary school principals are probably better at warmth and charm than most administrators. They have to deal with weeping six-year-olds, for heaven’s sake!

If it were me, I might have made brief note of what an exciting opportunity this was!, probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing (or nearly so). And then suggested that while this by itself mightn’t have made the absence excused, neither would I want to keep them from taking the trip. It’s a big family moment, and I have some respect for family matters.

But regardless of the tone, there wasn’t a single untrue statement in that letter. By the book, we are.

Out of curiosity, I went to the school website to see if there was actually a “book” to be “by” … and by George, there was a PDF available. The school handbook said this:

Regular school attendance is required of all students enrolled in the school during the days and hours that the school is in session. The School Board considers the following conditions to constitute reasonable cause for absence from school: … personal illness … quarantine of the individual or home … death in the immediate family … exceptional, urgent reasons (must pertain to student) … religious holiday … suspension from school … required court appearance … in the case of the exceptional student (Special Education), where absence is caused by or directly related to the student’s exceptionality … religious instruction (at the written request of a parent, students may be excused for up to 36 hours of religious instruction per year). … [I]f a student is absent three consecutive days or has absences exceeding 15% of the class time, the teacher will refer the student’s name to the office for further investigation. Following each absence, parents are to provide a written excuse note indicating the reason for the child’s absence.”

With the understanding that it’s possible for a parent to sign the “I read the school handbook” form without actually having done so … still, that rule is kinda there in black and white.

Again, I have no way of knowing whether the school had been alerted to the vacation in advance. If so, one would hope the school had followed up on it in a timely manner, if they had deep concerns. If not, then the family didn’t follow the rule which says, okay, but after the absence, can you write us a note?

And, happily, the school handbook did point out the reasoning for why we prefer to have kids in school where at all possible:

The district firmly believes that there is a high correlation between class attendance and student achievement. The majority of what is learned in school involves direct instruction by a teacher, the interaction between teacher and student, and the interaction among students. These activities occur in school and are missed by a student who is absent from school. What is missed cannot be made up through homework or extra assignments.”

Can’t argue with that.

 

Except that the father did just that, did you notice?

While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school. … Our children had a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that can’t be duplicated in a classroom or read in a book. … [What they saw at the Marathon] are things they won’t ever truly learn in the classroom. … [Some of the vacation activities represent] things they WILL learn in school a year or more from now. So in actuality our children are ahead of the game.”

Where to start?

My gut would like to deal with the condescension first.

But perhaps it’s better to deal with content than delivery, just now.

First: boy, did the father play with fire: took a lot of opportunities to suggest that when it came to education, father knows best.

As educational as a lot of those activities might turn out to be, the description of their ability to supplant an actual curriculum came off, to me, a little like suggesting that going to see the movie “Star Trek Into Darkness” would pave the way for the kids to one day become astrophysicists. With as much suspicion as I view the expanding vistas of standardized testing … ya gotta be able to prove somehow that learning happened, don’t you?

I have no way of knowing whether the father himself was an education professional. I have no way of knowing what his life’s work is at all, beyond distance running. (Maybe he’s a creative writer.) But I didn’t get the impression that there was going to be an essay exam when the family got home. Or even a presentation when the kids returned to school.

Gotta say, that’s gutsy. I don’t know whether I’d write a letter to my doctor and tell him, no, I think I know more about doctorin’ than he does. Maybe it might be a fun experience to write to my lawyer and give her a few pointers on what evidence will fly in court and what won’t. Probably not though, at least not in the first letter I send. Because I’m a music teacher … and while I’ve gone to the doctor and consulted with a lawyer, medicine and the law are not my areas of expertise.

And about that particular tone of voice?

While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, …”

Yeah, because strangely enough, that’s the principal’s job.

Breathtaking.

 

Instead, in this father’s shoes, I think I may have written something like:

Dear Dr. [Principal’s Last Name],

Thanks so much for your letter. I’m pleased that our children’s school maintains an awareness of the importance of being present in school. Your attendance policies are very clear to me from my reading of the handbook, and should apply to everyone equally, my children included.

By way of explanation: my spouse and I decided to bring our children with us to Boston to see me attempt to run the Boston Marathon, because it may the one time I try this, and they were interested in cheering for me at the finish line. They, and we, understand that those absences will be marked as unexcused, and we regret this; but some weeks ago we were in contact with all our children’s teachers, and made prior arrangements with them, so that our kids can make up homework and otherwise catch up on in-class material. We recognize that this is an inconvenience, and thank them for their extra work.

We certainly would not have pulled them out of classes if their attendance records were close to the limits beyond which disciplinary action would be warranted. It would be unfair for parents to do this to their children.”

We hope that you can understand our reasons for taking this trip in this way. If not, or if there are any questions that you have about any part of this, we would be more than happy to meet with you to have a further conversation.

At the very least, we look forward to seeing you at the music concert next month!”

Sincerely,

Me”

Y’know … diplomacy and a bit of compromise, as opposed to trying to score points. And I might err on the side of confidentiality, as distinct from putting a letter up on the Internets where, well, where random bloggers like me can read it and interpret it as somebody trying to score points.

Good Lord. A teacher, being all empathetic to the principal’s point of view. How ’bout that.

I gotta go sit down.

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April 28, 2015 - Posted by | education, Facebook, social media | , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I like your version of the letter, as it suggests a bit of understanding for the teacher’s plight and it acknowledges that one’s actions might have consequences, particularly when the consequences are made public in advance. Since I’m an elementary school teacher, I know that sometimes students cannot easily make up the special offerings, or even standard fare presented at school – even in elementary school. Consider the child who will miss a portion of a science unit involving specialized experiments not easily duplicated at home. How about the discussion between and among students regarding a book during a book group lesson, which certainly could be read at home, but would not receive the same close examination by the child and his or her peers together, which often is some of the best learning in the best elementary classrooms? While I laud the parent for his inclusion of some history during his trip, particularly since it sounds as if the family traveled a distance and did not have the Revolutionary War in the backyard, covering material “early” – as the father describes it – means that some material which was learned by the class in his child’s absence but tested in another grade was missed, and perhaps not easily taught in “make up” format (e.g. science content taught in one grade, but assessed in Grade 5; what the general public does not realize is that 3rd-5th grade teachers often are all responsible for teaching the content covered in standardized testing presented in the oldest grade. True, Grade 5 teachers often review that content as the test approaches, but “review” is the operative word. This father will perhaps make the 5th grade teacher more responsible for teaching that missed content for the first time.

    Another consideration is that missing even 3 days of math content may make this father’s progeny feel at sea when returning, especially if the three days are at the beginning of a new unit of study. As a teacher, I find it is sometimes difficult to help absent students feel comfortable in the current lesson when they have missed the previous several lessons, while simultaneously keeping the rest of the class – and the lesson – moving forward. In short, the child’s absence will require the child’s teacher to carve out separate time to help that child to comprehend what was missed; parents often talk about helping children to make up missed work, but I would be a rich teacher if I had a dollar for every instance in which none of the make up work or precious little was completed, or completed with any quality. It almost always falls to the elementary teacher to help an absent child make up missed work. To add another twist, with our fun and funky “new (old) math” which is constructivist and stresses understanding of concepts, instead of rote procedures with no understanding of what one is doing while using an algorithm, many parents revert to how they were taught math when helping their children with missed work, and unintentionally confuse their child to an even greater degree.

    In addition, while this parent feels quite free to say that he feels for the school teachers and administrators who missed his child at school, and says he appreciates their concerns, if he is like most of the US, he has absolutely no idea of the current-day concerns of said school personnel. Teachers are tasked with preparing children for timed tests when they cannot even keyboard effectively due to their age. While it is true that this father’s child can make up the standardized tests upon return, the child will miss more class time to do so, when the rest of the class will progress without him or her, since make up tests cannot be given before or after school and require more personnel to administer, especially if they are computer-based assessments. If a child never makes up the test, due to protracted absence, his or her teacher will have a failing grade averaged into his or her class’ scores (assuming there is no medical reason for absence), which will erroneously score the teacher as being worse at imparting knowledge and skills than he or she is, in reality. Even if this father’s child makes up the work, he or she will still have missed content, and likely won’t be quite as prepared to deal with his or her exams in some way – especially if the absence is directly before the standardized testing, when teachers often review test-taking strategies so that students are comfortable during testing. With the new Common Core standards, which require deep understanding of difficult concepts – challenging to children even with perfect attendance – this father’s child needs not only to be walking the Freedom Trail with his child, but also reading and interpreting every placard, putting it into historical context, and then asking the child to write a compare/contrast article using a mnemonic or graphic organizer to guide the structure of his or her essay about the Freedom Trail vs. another historical attraction, in order to be “learning more” than his classmates at school. So, while this father might have an “old education” appreciation for a teacher’s concerns, I’m more than confident that the father has absolutely NO idea of the extreme pressure teachers face today, particularly if his child’s teacher works in a state which directly connects testing to teacher evaluations. If his child does more poorly due to absence, this teacher’s job evaluation will reflect that more poor performance – and wouldn’t necessarily reflect her own real performance in the classroom. Now, multiply this effect by several students who are absent, due to family vacations taken during school time to avoid high airfare. (Then, subtract the teacher’s sanity and morale.)

    Last, the father’s letter appears to be a letter in which the father attempts to convince himself – via his school principal – that this absence was justified. He was running the marathon and wanted his family to watch him, but could he have gone by himself? Likely yes, unless he cannot tie his sneakers by himself. Did his child really engage in such meaningful conversation about the many wonderful runners and their charity, patriotism, dedication, and perseverance, or did he or she really just ring a bell, yell happily, hand out an orange slice, and watch the runners speed along? As a teacher, I’m so much happier when getting ready to help a child make up work if the child traveled to a faraway city to attend a relative’s funeral or a family wedding, which obviously cannot be scheduled for another time, and which doesn’t have an extra week added to it, unless it is truly very far away or is very necessary to sew up family details. Will I help all children to make up all that they miss? Of course – I’m a teacher. And, despite much publicity to the contrary, most teachers are both competent and compassionate, especially when it comes to their students. We love it when parents make it as easy as possible for us to do our jobs and as easy as possible for their children to learn well.

    So, this is more likely a case of Sparta vs. Athens, as my husband likes to say. And, if this father, like many Americans, values Sparta so much more than Athens that he is willing to remove his child from school in order to see him run the Boston Marathon, then this is, of course his right. But, he must be willing and even cheerful about accepting the previously-delineated consequences – without a letter to the principal to convince himself that his values are appropriate for his child.

    Comment by Kristin | April 29, 2015 | Reply


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