Flunk From the series: Life on Dog Hill

Okay, let me level-set right now: this could be a parental defensive reflex. However, I’ve given this situation a lot of reflection and have concluded that, while I am being defensive, it is qualifiedly justified. In this case, my conclusion is that the problem is not the student, nor the work he submitted. The problem, I believe, is the teacher.

Let me step back and say that I take extra effort to be supportive of teachers. My husband and I have graduated six kids through the public school system in North Carolina and we are excited to see excellent progress in number seven, who is in the sixth grade. (I know, I know, but that’s a different story).

Teachers have one heck of a hard job and their salaries are insufficient for the burden of their responsibility. North Carolina ranks 47 out of 50 states in teacher pay and the average NC teacher makes $10,436 less than the national average. It’s a terrible legislative mistake to put so little investment into the teachers who help mold the minds of our children into the adults they will become.

Because my husband and I have such high regard for teachers, we make it a point to give positive feedback to teachers and encourage our son to do the same. Like anyone else, teachers like being acknowledged. Further, while the PTA membership is only $10, we sent in $50 to help cover teacher supplies. Just last month, there was a fund raiser to offer teachers and administrators food/gas cards as holiday gifts and my husband and I contributed $100. We appreciate teachers and are grateful for their committment to our children.

When our twin sons were in middle school where our youngest son now attends, we were regularly contacted by teachers who voiced concern about one or the other’s behavior or performance. When they were in eighth grade, I sat in an algebra class for three days straight because the teacher had repeatedy contacted me about disrespectful and disruptive behavior. My showing up for class was humiliating for my son, but from that time forward I never had a teacher contact me on account of disruptive behavior for either of them. The possible consequence of having mom show up for class kept them on the straight and narrow.

So understand, we have a history of being incredibly supportive of our schools and staff. That said, not everyone in the school system should be there; and, not all teachers working with our children seem to understand basic child psychology. In fact, I’ve questioned if one teacher in particular even likes kids.

Last semester my sixth grader spent three weeks in Health studying the dangers of tobacco. He really enjoyed the unit and came home daily with tales about the dangers of smoking. For the most part, this was a group project. However, for his independent contribution, Ryan had to come up with five questions and answers to demonstrate what he had learned. He put a lot of effort into his assignment, even coming up with a bonus question. When he turned it in, he was very proud.

Unfortunately, his hard work didn’t pay off when his teacher gave him a 60. Seriously, the teacher failed him for turning in the following:

1) Smoking is bad for you.



Answer: True. Smoking is bad for you because it has many dangerous chemicals, 27 are related to cancer.

2) Which can be caused from smoking? (Circle all that are correct)

a) Cancer


b) Coco for Coco Puffs

c) The urge to eat food

d) Mad pogo skills

Answer: A: Smoking is known to cause cancer

3) Chew tobacco is just as bad as smoking.



Answer: True. Chew tobacco has small fragments of glass which cuts you lip so that the chemicals in the tobacco can get into your body faster.

4) Smoking enhances your chances of getting sick.



Answer: True. Tar from cigarette smoking blackens your lungs, leads to shortness of breath and can weaken your ability to fight respiratory illnesses like pneumonia. 

5) What kind of diseases can result from using tobacco products? (Check all that are correct)

a) Cancer

b) Constipation

c) Death

d) Cardio Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Answer: A, C & D

Bonus Question:

6) One of every five deaths in the US is related to smoking.



Answer: True. According to the Center for Disease Control, adverse health effects from cigarette smoking account for more than 440,000 deaths, or nearly one of every five deaths, each year in the United States.

Ryan's Health Grade

When I emailed the teacher about Ryan’s failing grade (surely it was a mistake) she responded that, “…his questions and answers lacked much thought or depth of understanding and he asked questions with obvious answers,” she wrote. “The answer to a true/false question about smoking being bad (or good) for you is pretty obvious.  Most students knew, prior to us starting the unit in class, that smoking is bad for people.”

Really? Let’s check the algorithms for Google search which automatically brings up the most common searches on Google.

If you type in:

Is smoking ci

You automatically get this in the search bar: Is smoking cigarettes bad for you?

Screenshot 2014-01-21 21.06.05 (1)

According to Google’s 2013 year end statistics, out of 5,922,000,000 daily searches last year (that’s billion!)… the most common question typed into the Google search bar is the very same question that Ryan listed as number 1 on his paper. (http://www.statisticbrain.com/google-searches/). Holy smokes! Can you believe all the idiots who would even ask such a lame question?

Sarcasm aside, while this may be a simple question, statistics clearly prove its relevance.

Ah, but the teacher continued with her explanation of Ryan’s failing.

“The point of having students create quiz questions (and answers) was to have them show me the depth of what new knowledge and understanding they gained while completing the project,” she said.  “Nowhere in the unit did we discuss coco puffs, pogo skills, or anything like that.”

Since when is having a sense of humor a sign of failure? Only a teacher who didn’t bother to get to know her students could come to the end of the first half of the school year and not know that Ryan is a funny guy. He is a happy young man with a keen (albeit dry) sense of humor. Ask anyone who knows him. Even I laughed when I read his answer suggesting Coco Puffs and Mad Pogo Skills because I understood that Ryan was making the assignment fun.

Too bad this teacher takes herself so seriously that she couldn’t appreciate Ryan’s injection of humor along with his demonstration of understanding the serious topic at hand. Just four months ago, he lost his maternal grandmother to lung disease. A smoker all of her adult life, the dangers of smoking were made very real for Ryan. Believe me, he gets it.

When teachers like this one look so hard for reasons to fail students, rather than looking for indications that the student is engaged and comprehending the material, they undermine student success.

When a student goes above and beyond; for example, typing the assignment when that was not required and adding a bonus question, those are signs that the student is engaged and desires to do well. Teachers who don’t get this are not the kind of teachers we need in our classrooms because they strike at the very heart of successful learning—passion!

I’m not saying Ryan deserved an “A” but I am saying he definitely did NOT deserve an “F.” Interestingly, his grade changed. Prior to my contacting the teacher, his grade was three out of five for his questions but the teacher had given him a D. After our email exchange, the grade changed to 12 out of 20 and he had an F. Since most of the project was considered a group project, I can only guess that the teacher factored in group points. I asked her many questions about the group aspect. For example, if it’s a group project and my son failed, did everyone in the group fail? That question—and others like it—were ignored. As you can see from the screen shot of his grades, the failure made the difference between his receiving a “B” and an “A.” Although administration was notified of my concerns, they have taken  a “hands off” position saying this was between me and the teacher. Not very reassuring….

As we move into a new semester, my son remains totally confused about what went wrong. Moreover, he doesn’t understand how going above and beyond earned him a big, fat “F.” For the first time ever, I told my son this was a problem with the teacher, not him. The grade is irrelevant.

The good news is that this teacher has moved on so Ryan won’t have any internal conflict about rising to her arbitrary expectations. The bad news is that this teacher has moved on to another school. There is the hope, of course, that in moving to a new school she will take lessons learned with her. Accepting the fact that she takes herself (and her ego) way too seriously would be a good start. Working harder to understand (and even try to like) kids would be an excellent next step as well. Otherwise, I’m predicting parents at her new location will become equally disturbed.

But that’s just my opinion.


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