Why Tough Teachers Often Have a Tough Time – part 1

Private schools can be the hardest places for tough teachers. I know of a teacher, lets call him Mr. White, who taught science and math at a religious private school (that will go unnamed to protect the reputation of the school – this is a true story). He came to the school worn down by some of the typical trials of a public school (unmotivated students, regular behavior disruptions, etc.), expecting things to be different. And they were. With involved parents (most of them) in mostly stable family situations, the students were much more respectful and studious than those in the public school from which he came.

He also expected that these students would achieve more academically, be more diligent and embrace a higher level of rigor. A private school, after all, was free from the shackles of AYP (annual yearly progress), which measures a high school’s success by such metrics as graduation rate, which at his public school had led to persistent pressure not to fail students in classes required for graduation. There would be a freedom to evaluate students more honestly by the criteria set by the school, and fewer failures because the parents were directly paying for the education.

Some of these expectations turned out to be wrong. While the private school students did, on average, work harder, and while fewer failed, there was even more scrutiny of the grades, but by parents more than administrators, and more complaining by the students. The scrutiny was not focused on failures but whether the children were making As and Bs. Cs, and sometimes even Bs, were regarded as unacceptable grades by many, and teachers often had to defend these marks to parents in the presence of administrators. The complaining was not only about the grades, but also about methods of instruction. “She’s not teaching us!” was the common refrain. They said this because the teacher was employing novel, pedagogically sound methods when the students were used to being spoonfed facts which they would then regurgitate on tests. By the middle of the year, the exhausted teacher was spending hours each week in parent-teacher conferences and in consultations with administration.

Mr.White drew inspiration, though, from the many students that were flourishing because they were responding to the challenges set before them with a persevering attitude. These students quietly brought Cs up to Bs and Bs up to As, and were building confidence in their ability to master difficult subjects. Meanwhile, he was struggling with her 2nd year advanced chemistry students who could not master higher level chemistry because their foundation was so weak. These were among the top students and had earned As in first year chemistry under the previous teacher. He was confident that the students earning As in her first year course were acquiring a much stronger foundation.

This proved to be the case the following year. In spite of the trouble with parent and student complaints, Mr. White returned for a 2nd year, enjoying strong support from the principal. Her advanced, 2nd year students were far more capable, and he was excited to build on this foundation with them so that they could earn college credit for Chemistry (last year’s advanced students earned no credit). Unfortunately, midway through the year, he was fired, even though he was under contract (private schools have more freedom to do that). The reasons were not made plain to him, except that students continued to complain (though not the advanced chemistry students) and certain, influential parents wanted him gone. The decision had nothing to do with the demonstrable academic results her students were achieving. On the Monday after Thanksgiving break, he was told to move his things by the next day; he would not be allowed to finish the year.

Private schools, especially newer ones that are not well established and therefore are not financially secure, can become hostile places for tough, demanding teachers to work for the simple reasons that grades are influenced by money. Administrators are anxious to lose students because of the resulting loss of revenues, so there is financial pressure to give students the grades they and their parents expect. So the relationship is not direct, e.g. parents paying more for their students to get better grades, but the possibility for administrator’s judgment of teachers to become biased by dollar signs is very real.

This story raises the question: are public schools different from private schools concerning the impact of money on grades? Theoretically, they should be free from such influence because parents are not paying directly for the education. But are there ways that public funding and other factors can corrupt grading and make things difficult for tough teachers in public schools? These are questions I will explore in subsequent posts.

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