Wednesday, June 13, 2007

What is a teacher?

This is a post from last school year (January of 2006), but I feel I can post it now that the student has graduated. I have made sure the student could not be identified.

In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.

Frank McCourt, Teacher Man

Today I was a cop. As I was reading a research paper yesterday, I paused at some odd language. With a few keystrokes in a search engine, I had caught some plagiarism. A lot of it. Just on the first page. So I took it to the counselor and emailed the (divorced) parents about it. The reply from dad exhibited concern but, as we already had a meeting scheduled for after school, he said he would talk to me about it then. During our meeting, when I showed him the paper, he was understandably saddened and disappointed, but not angry.

Mom, on the other hand, handled it quite differently. Her first question was "How long have you known about this?" That's a dang weird question. Did she think I was sitting on the information, waiting to spring it on her with less than two weeks left in the semester? The answer was, "since this morning." In her reply, she wrote she was "so sorry that you feel there was plagiarism."

Let's look at that statement. First of all, I didn't "feel" there was any plagiarism, I knew there was plagiarism. Because I could tell that I was going to have a difficult time with mom, I spent some more time on the paper to make sure it was plagiarized through and through. You know, crossing my t's and dotting my i's, so to speak. Well, as I stated in the email to mom, I found at least seventeen sentences entirely plagiarized in the first seven paragraphs of the paper--no citation, no reference to the plagiarized works in the bibliography. Wholesale plagiarism. The other red flag was the fact that a few words were changed. This says to me that she knew she was plagiarizing and was trying to hide it.

Secondly, the passive construction in that sentence attempted to take the blame off the student. She didn't write, "I'm sorry you feel my daughter plagiarized," she wrote "I'm sorry you feel there is plagiarism," as if I was concerned that the practice existed.

After school, mom surprised me in my room with her daughter, and I showed them both the plagiarism I had spent 1-2 hours documenting. Mom was calm and told her daughter to apologize to me, which she did. Zero on the paper. F for the semester. Talk to your counselor. End of story.

As I think about the paper, though, I get more and more angry. First of all, she must think I'm an idiot to try to pass such wholesale plagiarism past me, thinking I won't catch it. Then, when I told mom about the plagiarism, the student said she only plagiarized technical information that she couldn't say any other way. Absolute hogwash. In fact, all of her technical information was documented correctly--it was everything else that was plagiarized.

This reveals a frustration that I have heard from many good teachers. We spend so much time on the least motivated 20% of our kids that we short-change the other 80%. We keep giving them last chance after last chance to do their work--we call home time after time, we answer email after email, we fill out referrals to homework center. The result? The parents and I end up working infinitely harder than the student. If I had to estimate the time spent on this kid, I would have to say at least eight hours this year--that means I have spent two weeks worth of my preparation period on this kid. Eight hours that I could have been planning, grading, intervening with other kids, spent on a kid who has made little if any attempt to raise her grade above an F.

I don't mind working hard for kids--I just need them to work too.


Jake D said...

I'm now in my final week of my Student Teaching. What an experience it has been. As I have had the experience to work in a Title I school, I couldn't agree more with the last paragraph from McCourt's writing. I realized last week that I had been spending at least 80% of my time with students who are far below grade level in most areas... STRUGGLING to get them engaged. Taking the time to modify every lesson to accomodate these students who, on most days, didn't give a shit that I was trying to help THEM.
So, where did that leave the other students? The ones that would really benifit from some high quality, well constructed lessons that really challenged them? They were finished early with the lesson and bored out of their minds. Who benifits here?

Eric said...

As you teach longer, I think your skill at keeping all kids engaged gets better.

The McGuffin said...

I don't know how you guys do it...I guess like Jake said..."I have the calling." The system needs more involved and motivated teachers like you fellas.