Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Calling Interference: What Happens When Academics Collide with Extra-Whatever?

"You have the distinction of being the least-prepared class in my 34 years teaching." 

I swallowed tears, my voice cracking a little as I uttered those words to a classroom full of excellent students. Students whose over-scheduled lives collided with their academic obligations. Obligations in an Early College Program class in which 21 of 26 students are enrolled for college credit. College credit that the state helps fund and for which students pay reduced fees and receive access to amenities on the university's campus. 

As I shared the sad story of my kind, generous, smart students with a colleague this afternoon, we began discussing our love of teaching but our dismay about the myriad priorities among our students and in our district that overshadow our priority: teaching, instilling academic excellence and responsibility in our students. 

Simply, students have been taught that academics, that is, classes in school can and should subordinate to all the other extra whatever in a student's life. I've contemplated the "why?" for many years. Here's what I think: 

  • How can a sporting event be postponed to accommodate schoolwork of team members? 
  • How can a business change its business paradigm or hours to accommodate a student's class schedule? 
  • How can parents take a discounted family cruise at the height of vacation season when teachers can simply do whatever it takes to help a child who falls behind in school catch up?
  • How can assemblies and fundraisers happen when students responsible for organizing and running them do their homework first and their social justice and service activities as they find time? 
Too much of what goes on in a school day has little to do with academic learning. Our society, including many in education, rationalize these intrusions by saying that kids learn social skills, learn teamwork, etc. when they participate in extracurricular activities and sports, when they have an after-school job. 

My students have very busy lives. They have jobs. They play sports. They take AP, honors, and early college program classes. They serve their churches, their community, their families, and their school in myriad ways. 

My students, and countless others, live lives in which every minute of their waking lives is scheduled. 

Students today must take every opportunity they can to get ahead, and for the students in my dual credit Communication class this means earning as many college credits as they can earn. The exorbitant cost of college demands they do this. 

But taking a college-level speech class in high school also means meeting the deadlines outlined on the syllabus. It's both the students' and my legal obligation. Listening to speeches takes time. I'm charged with teaching the class as though students are on campus. It's a delicate balancing act,one in which students often teeter-totter in two worlds--the world of high school and the world of college. 

Complicating the tight schedule is the incursion of the SAT test all juniors in Idaho will take on Wednesday. This gives us one less day for speeches. The lack of preparedness also means students will have less time to prepare for the next speech. 

As we talked about what went sideways today, I tried to reassure students that I'm very fond of them, that having to assess consequences for their lack of preparedness breaks my heart. I told them a story about a competition when I was in college and had not allotted myself enough time to memorize my speech. I was embarrassed. I suffered through that competition. I learned from it, and they will learn from this experience, too. 

Today all the extras in their lives collided with their academic obligations. Today I called interference. If only the academic interference were a momentary blip. 

Unfortunately, interference commonly encroaches on students' learning and teachers' teaching. 


  1. Your lead took me back a bit as I'm sure it did your students. Confronting the problem and discussing it together shows you are committed to working through it with students. "...we talked about what went sideways today." Sideways captures it and I appreciate that you took the time to talk it out with students. Those are difficult conversations. I hope you all generated solutions and cultivated a renewed sense of purpose that will carry you to year's end.

    1. I think the kids know how fond of them I am. Many have had me for other classes; sometimes that familiarity gets misinterpreted, as you know. I think I'll hear some very impressive speeches when we get to the persuasive speech next week.

  2. Your slice hit home with me today. I am a mom of 2 very busy teen-age daughters that are balancing life with academics. We have conversations (almost everyday) about this. I appreciate your side of this, as I am a teacher too! Your students are lucky to have a teacher that holds them accountable, but understands as well.

    1. I can hold students to a higher level of accountability in Comm than in my other classes. My university supervisor would likely pull the plug on the class if I didn't.

  3. As a leader of a couple of these extra curriculars, I try to stress it will always be academics first. I feel like so many of them miss the point of what it is we're trying to do as educators. Yes, winning is great. Sure, tournaments are fun. But no amount of W's is going to help that kid be a competent adult. I don't know what we do.

    My biggest struggle this year has actually been my own absences. How on earth am can I teach them what they need to know if I'm not even here? Anything instructional, especially secondary it seems, cannot be left with a sub. I've been trying google classroom as a self-taught/self-paced type program. Still very difficult.

    Keep up the good fight!!!

    1. I've coached/directed many extra-curricular activities, too, and share your priorities. However, the rhetoric and activity requirements don't always harmonize, as you know.

      I'm impressed that you mention your own attendance as an issue. I work w/ some people who don't coach but who also have attendance problems, and I share your belief that it's impossible to teach when the teacher is absent.

  4. Sounds like you had a tough and honest discussion. I suspect that your students will carry this conversation with them in the years to come. Very true - "I learned from it, and they will learn from this experience, too." It is good that you helped them question the way things are, how full and demanding their lives are - and whether they have set the right priorities. (I wonder how many high schoolers even realize they are setting priorities - caught up on a treadmill of expectations and demands, from so many directions.) Thanks for sharing!

    1. Many of the students stopped by to apologize for being unprepared. They learned a tough lesson about the importance of time management. Many underestimated the difficulty level of the speech.