Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Anatomy of an "F"

In addition to my parenting work, I teach at a small liberal arts college. I have been teaching there for over 20 years and have watched students come and go, trends come and go, and perhaps the most interesting, the changes in what motivates students to want to learn. In the earlier years of teaching, my students were not distracted by phones and computers in the classroom, and guess what, they were more "present" in the classroom. What a big surprise! I rarely gave out D's or F's. Usually it was because a student disappeared from class, and I had no other option. Over the last few years I gave out a record number of D's and F's to my freshman students.  Believe me,  it gives me no pleasure to give them. In fact I feel guilty, disappointed, and really really bad for the parents of these kids who have forked over a ridiculous amount of money, and great sacrifice to send their kid to this private college, and now have to fork over extra for their kid to retake this required class.

Let me introduce you to one of my "F's". He came to my first class, very open and friendly, even coming up to personally introduce himself to me. I was looking forward to having this friendly young guy in my class. That was week 1. Week 2 rolls around (this class meets twice a week) and he saunters in 15 minutes late. I think this is probably an aberration, but still I give the class a quick lecture on the importance of getting to class on time. Week 3 and on to week 14 this student misses at least a class a week, and when he does come, he is always 15 minutes late. I meet with him and discuss my concerns, and he apologizes and promises to do better. Additionally, he has been texting regularly in class, as do a number of students. I joke, I cajole, I scold, to put the phones out of reach. But mostly to no avail. Many students now bring laptops to class ostensibly to take notes. I am adapting to the times, and understand that this is what students use now, though I am still a paper and pen fan myself. I'm sure you can guess where I am going here. Are the kids really taking notes, maybe, but most are also on facebook throughout the class. My F student, sitting in the front row, busily writing away on his laptop has caught the eyes of the students in back of him, and I saunter over and there is facebook up and running. He turns to me, smiles coyly as I tell him (not ask) to put the laptop away. So now I have become  the cellphone computer police! My "F" guy does surprisingly well on his midterm, but hands in a big paper 8 weeks late, no excuses, never hands in the final paper, and fails the final. You don't have to be Einstein here to do the math, he ended the semester with an F. Amazingly when he got his grade he e-mailed me in a huff. How dare I flunk him, he has never flunked a class before, but but but but! There was no but about it, numbers are numbers. I am guessing that this charming young man, during his high school years was able talk his way out of and negotiate with his teachers, and probably his parents to get what he wanted. The buck stopped with me. By the way the college I teach at is not highly selective. Many students struggled academically in high school. But I love these students, because in the past they have felt grateful for the chance to come to college at all, and helping them to find themselves as students, and learn to become curious learners is why I teach.

Why have I told you this story?  Here is why. College is not an entitlement, at least not anymore. It doesn't have to be a vocational school, kids do not need to know what they want to be when they grow up, but they should at least want to sit in their classes, and try to take in as much as they can. College is a full-service experience. It is a protective environment for teens to leave home, develop some independent living skills, learn how to manage their lives without mom and dad, and yes try to take in some knowledge that helps them to become well-rounded, well-educated adults. But at $30,000-$50,000 a pop, kids need to understand that if they aren't into the school thing, maybe college is not the way to go, perhaps a job and apartment is a better fit.

Parenting is about helping your kids find their mojo and reach their goals. We give our kids so much, but often expect to little in return. We give them their phones, their computers, their clothes, their cars, and now their education. Entitlement comes from putting something in to get something back. I pay social security tax, and I pay into unemployment so when I need it I can hopefully get it. Just make sure your kids are putting something in too.

High school is a practice run for college. Does my teen know how to get him/herself up on time? Is my teen able to set limits on him/herself around homework distractions in order to get work done? Is my teen able to keep him/herself safe when it comes to drugs and alcohol? Is my teen able to manage money?

If you answered NO to any of these questions, which I would expect, you would see these as goals for you and your teen over the next few years BEFORE he/she leaves the nest. Mommy birds bring their babies the worms when they are babies, but when it's "time" pushes them out of the nest to learn for themselves. Maybe a little nest-pushing wouldn't hurt.

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