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Mabuhay! I'm an Asian American writer (Back Kicks And Broken Promises, Abbott Press, 2012), martial artist and teacher who was born in The Philippines, raised in Hong Kong and ended up in New Jersey.

23 January, 2012

Educational Conundrum

I don’t know. Maybe I’m being elitist. Maybe I’m being a snob. Maybe I don’t understand education. Maybe I don’t understand the culture in which I live. I am a teacher, though, and I do understand that there is a downward trend in students’ GPAs and test scores.
I’m bringing this up because I recently had a conversation with one of my students. It’s the final week of the semester and I assigned a small project for my students to complete by the end of the week. It’s also midterm time at our school and the student reminded me that we (the teachers) are not supposed to give homework during midterms. Honestly, I haven’t looked at the policy about this lately and I’m sure what the student said is over generalizing but it did sound familiar. Let me say, before someone points to the student and says that the student was just trying to get out of work, that this particular student is earning good grades in my class and produces good work. This student is not on the lower end of the grade spectrum and does not try to get out of working.
I believe the policy for not giving the students work during midterms is so they can focus on their exams, study for them and not get too stressed out. On some level, I suppose it’s looking out for the student. On the flip side, however, I think it’s doing the students a disservice. When I did a year at a private Catholic all-boys secondary school in New Jersey, there were designated days that teachers of certain subjects could assign homework. For instance, Monday was the day maths teachers could give homework and Tuesday was for science. Maths teachers weren’t ‘allowed’ to give homework on any day other than Monday.
I never considered myself to be a good student; one of those super motivated, high achievers who desire about going to an Ivy League school from the age of five or six. My parents, also, weren’t the type to push me towards that. My mother wasn’t a Tiger Mom and my dad wasn’t a Tiger Dad in regard to education. Looking back, however, I do recall getting good grades. Simply, I believe that was because I was made to work. Teachers gave us homework and assignments whenever they felt they needed to. It didn’t matter if all my teachers gave me projects at the same time and if they were all due on the same day. We, my classmates and I, were expected to get the work done and we were expected to do it well. I’m not saying to give students just to give them work. That would be a quantity over quality display and quantity doesn’t always lead to good things. However, work should be given when it’s needed and it should be work that’s meaningful and forces the students to think.
Some of the students I teach complain when I assign them a project. They cite that other teachers have given them work, as well. They ask for extensions. Some even ask if they have to actually do the projects I assign. I think we – teachers, parents, and society – have become soft enablers. There’s nothing wrong with being tough on kids; tough doesn’t mean abusive. It doesn’t mean bullying. It means demanding. It means forming discipline and good habits. Not being demanding enough can promote laziness which, in turn, leads to lack of performance. We’re talking education in this blog. Lack of performance turns into poor grades.
Another thing I’ve thought about over the years is the requirement for the number of days a student has to attend school each year. In New Jersey, it’s around 180 days. If a student misses too many, there are issues with failing and repeating the grade. Yes, there are truancy issues and kids can’t just not go to school and go to school when they choose, however, to simply say a student should fail because he or she just X number of days is, in my opinion, ludicrous. This came to mind because of a discussion I had about snow days and having to make up the days missed due to school closures if we use more than the built in number of emergency days.
Looking back on my own schooling, I recall in my Third Form (Grade 8) year that I was sick with bronchitis and out of school for a good two weeks. My brother got work for me from my teachers. As I recovered, I did the work at home and brought it in when I returned to school. For the classes my brother could not get work for, I simply asked them what I missed and, again, made up the work.
Encouragingly, I learnt from a fellow teacher that in one of the Dakotas – or is it one of the Carolinas – there isn’t a minimum number of days requirement in their schools. If days are missed due to weather or if a student is out due to a prolonged illness, for example, as long as the work is taught and learnt all is good. Again, there are truancy laws in this country and kids can’t just be absent. They do need to be in attendance to fully learn what they’re supposed to be learning. Also, requiring some kind of attendance teaches them responsibility and gives them a sense of what it’s going to be like when they’re older and in the workforce.
Education, in my opinion, should be a case of quality and not quantity. For the most part, in my experiences, the teachers I have had and worked with and the schools I have attended and taught in, follow this principle. Sometimes, however, funny things happen and it’s how much someone has done that takes precedence and is rewarded over the worth of whatever he or she did.
I believe accountability is the key. Make students accountable and make them think. Demand their best and accept nothing less.

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