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.