Rotten Apples

I have this one student who has become kind of my own pet project. He’s an 8th grader but his math, reading, reasoning skills, and writing skills are way, way below level. This is not because he has some kind of learning disability. I’m not exactly sure what his story is but, as I understand it, he goes to an alternative style school that doesn’t hold him to any sort of standard. This is a serious disservice to him because he is being raised in an environment that doesn’t challenge him or value education. But, then again, I don’t really know the story and being preachy isn’t going to help.

What is going to help is me taking the time to give him the instruction he needs. He’s a good kid and, after a lot of hard work, I feel like I’m connecting with him and he’s actually making some progress. I even got him to agree to read a book. He’d been really resistant to the idea of pleasure reading, but I think it’s probably the best thing he could do for himself right now. I suggested a few books that seemed like they might be interesting to him. He perked up, but still shied away from making a commitment. I finally got him to agree to read by bargaining with him; I promised to read Rangers Apprentice if he would agree to read Eragon. Am I going to read the book? It’s not likely with my amount of schoolwork. But I will Sparknote it so I can talk to him about it. In the mean time, he’s located a copy of Eragon and started reading it, which is a huge step for this kid.

But that hasn’t been easy and there are continual hiccups along the way.

With my busy grad school schedule, my work in the tutoring center is limited. I don’t see him often and when he comes in to the center, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be scheduled with me. This is especially true since I’ve been working less in the learning center and more in the exam prep side. Now, I’m spending a lot more time with older kids teaching formal grammar, reading, and test strategy.

Where I work, each student has an individualized curriculum that guides my instruction. Part of my job is to program the curriculum. The last time I worked with this student was about six weeks ago. The teacher before me hadn’t programed ahead and had made several confusing mistakes in the curriculum. This kind of stuff happens all the time at the center and it really wreaks havoc for the teacher. I open the book and discover that, not only is there no instruction about what needs to be done, but there is actual misdirection in the curriculum or mistakes that I have to work through just to understand. As an added annoyance, there is usually no kind of message left in the notes section that would actually help me decode the instructional decisions of the previous teacher. All of this takes place as the student is waiting for me to tell him what he should be doing. It’s a bit embarrassing for me to make the student wait while I try to figure all this out on the fly. It’s also a waste of the student’s time and his parent’s money. Unfortunately, when I only see some students every so often, it’s hard for me to know what instruction he needs, especially as that changes rather quickly; I really can’t just make something up in the moment.

So, six weeks ago the usual chaos ensued. We didn’t get much done because of it. However, I went through and really fixed his program. I programed almost two pages ahead in his math work, which is an insane amount. I noted any kind of new books he was working with, what pages, organized his binder, placed all the correct score sheets with labels in their proper place, and left detailed instructions about what needed to be done and why.

The next teacher who worked with him is what they call a “bad apple” in the teaching profession. I’ve had trouble with her before. In this instance, she took those two pages of math that I’d preprogramed and just skipped it. She didn’t leave a note explaining why. It just seemed like she morally disagreed with my prescription, even through I literally followed the instructional model of the tutoring center.

Instead, she did a few activities that I didn’t program, and then had him take a post-test, which he didn’t pass. I’m assuming that was partly because he didn’t actually practice all the skills I’d set up for him. When a student doesn’t pass a post-test, it means he or she hasn’t really learned the necessary skills that we’ve been working on, and we are supposed to go back and review. The teacher just plowed ahead and didn’t even review the post-test with the student, which really makes the whole test pretty pointless. Over the course of the six weeks, other teachers also worked with this student. However, they just based their instruction on the most recent work. None of them noticed that a teacher had completely ignored almost two pages of math and pushed on to the next skill before the student was ready. When I saw my student this week, his program was completely off course and, once again, I had been left without any preprogrammed instruction.

It gets worse.

That same teacher had administered a pre-test for the next skill and wrote, “Needs to finish” on the instructional page. She then lost the math test, which happened to be one of the rare tests that are actually kind of long. This kid is not interested in school or learning to begin with, so imagine how he felt when I told him he had to do it again. I wanted to skip it but without it, I don’t know which skills to program. Just as I was figuring this out, I was supposed to switch and work with a different student in ACT prep, and a brand-new teacher was supposed to take over for me. I had to dump this poor new teacher into a situation in which I didn’t even know what was going on and my student, who was now quite angry, had to retake a test through no fault of his own.

It’s a complicated situation because the teacher I’m having problems with is in a unique situation. She used to own the center before someone else bought it from her. Now, she’s back as a tutor, which seems like an odd career move. She’s also older, so I tend to think of her as more knowledgeable than I am. On the other hand, I’ve worked at the center longer than her (since her return, anyway) and I think I have a really good understanding of the programming methods and the needs of this particular student. I’ve also noticed she tends to get into a lot of pretty negative conversations with students. That’s not to say that I don’t agree with what she’s trying to do—it’s often about something like getting students to show their work—but her tone says a lot and it tends to become a battle for power, rather than a helpful instructional tip. I also notice that later, when those same students work with me, they are appreciative when I’m not berating them. I recently helped one such student think of an idea for a sentence; completely out of the blue, he thanked me for “not being mean to him.”   I was completely taken aback; why would I be mean to him? He wasn’t even doing anything wrong.

There’s an old adage: “one bad apple spoils the barrel.” I don’t think that has to be true. It’s pretty frustrating to work with her. On the other hand, it’s a real learning experience. Watching her work has taught me a lot about how I want to teach when I have my own classroom. In a perverse way, she’s also helped me with my own management of the students; they seem to appreciate my contrasting style and it’s easier to build rapport.

The purpose of this essay is not to boast about my own instructional abilities or to argue that that one “bad apple” is wrong and I am right. God knows I don’t have all the answers. I’m pretty new to this and it scares me to death. And I’m grateful to her, in some ways, because I feel like I’m learning from her approach. After all, my “pet project” student needs a lot of help and, really, that’s a team effort. Some combinations of different approaches might prove successful for him. I should also give this teacher the benefit of the doubt by believing that skipping my programmed work served some instructional purpose (although I still would have liked to have known what that purpose was).

But I worry. Is my student the one who suffers? As I’m learning to adapt to his needs and spending a lot of time working through the quagmire that is his program, he might not be getting the instruction he needs. When his school doesn’t hold him accountable for his own learning, when he’s taught not to value learning, it makes teaching so much harder. In addition to the content, I also have to try and instill a sense of purpose and intrinsic value in learning. But how do I do that, when I see him every few weeks and he lives a life of disconnected instruction and disinterest in learning even the most fundamental skills. Are other teachers meeting his needs, when I’m not working with him? Is there more I could be doing to help?

I don’t want to believe that one bad apple can spoil the whole batch, but I suppose it depends on the intensity of flavor in that bad apple. It depends on if or how quickly someone comes by and picks out the bad apple. It depends on how much the other apples can balance with the sour flavor of the putrid fruit. The final product matters because that product is a person, who really needs us to come through for him.

Photo credit: Alison e Dunn via Flickr

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