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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Teacher Diary: Responsibility

We have the Bill of Rights. 
What we need is a Bill of Responsibilities.” 
-Bill Maher

Webster Dictionary: Responsiblity: The ability to answer for one's conduct and obligations.

The 2009-09 school year has come to an end. As often happens to me, I was left thinking about the meaning of "responsibility". I think of this word in concentric circles of influence. There is my own sense of responsibility to my students, my colleagues, my school, and (in recent years) to my family. 

The last two weeks of school are full of special schedules and new "duties" for all the teachers to cover. I personally hate the word "duty" because it feels like some military addition to a job I otherwise love. These duties include monitoring the student council barbecue, organizing the class picnic, and playing in the faculty/student basketball game (as examples). There are also the less glamorous duties of monitoring student cleaning of lockers, extra recesses and general student rowdiness. Then there are the teacher duties to the school, such as completing report cards on time, cleaning the classroom and attending all the different end of the year meetings the seem to arise.

I personally don't mind these added responsibilities in part because I see the value or necessity in each of these end of the year activities and I feel it is my responsibility to participate fully in them. However, I have often felt myself to be in the extreme minority of teachers willing to take on new activities as the year ends. Hence, I leave the school for summer break with some less than generous feelings about collegial participation.

Following the concentric circles of responsibility, I think about my students and their families. By the end of 8th grade, all of my students in our private school know which high school they will be attending and what math class they tested into. For many of my students, the high school placement was acceptable. This means that either they tested into the higher math class and avoided retaking algebra again as freshmen, or they will take the algebra class and feel relieved to be able to review this difficult math subject. 

But for about 1/4 of my students, there is a latent sense of frustration because they did not test as high into their school's math program as they would like. There are so many reasons for this happening. For some, it is poor test taking skills that holds them back. For others, it was a topic or two in algebra they never quite mastered or which came late in the year when their attention was waning. Sometimes the high schools have difficult marks to hit and makes their program a poor fit to our math program. And if I am entirely honest, for a couple of students I may well be responsible for not pushing, not delving or not helping in the right way when they needed it.

That being said, these 1/4 of students and families often try to lay the entire responsibility of this placement on me. I chafe at taking all the responsibility at the end of the year because I am so aware of all the extenuating circumstances that hold back given students at certain times in their lives. I remember the month that one student refused to do her work in class and instead spent each class period talking with her friend. Or the other student who was in strife with her friends and unable to focus in class. Or the other student who missed large sections of a month due to illness (which their families forget happened). I also remember families who struggled against my grading system when their child received a "B" instead of an "A" or excused homework due to outside activities.

It is not fair to place all responsibility of class outcomes on me as the teacher. I cannot control for each students' reaction to 15 different high school placement exams. I can only focus on creating the best possible learning environment for these same students when they are with me. For that I take 100% responsibility and need to spend each summer reflecting on my successes, and perhaps more importantly, my failings in this area.

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