Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Failure in Communication

Earlier this week, I reported that we'd been told that Danielle was failing her elective course.  We were told she was eight assignments behind, that there was no possible way she could catch up at school, and she'd need to bring work home.  Danielle's homeroom teacher asked us if we "could help her get caught up so she can have a passing grade."

All very well and good, but Danielle didn't bring her book home that night.  It's kind of hard to help her get caught up if she doesn't bring the materials home needed to do the work.

The next night, Danielle brought the book home, but reported that all of her assignments were completed.  We sent a note back to the elective teacher asking if this were true, and he replied that she was still missing three assignments, but that the work turned in was enough to give her a passing grade.

Good enough.  I really don't care what kind of grades Danielle brings home, just as long as she passes.  Although I think good grades are hugely important for college-bound kids who are fighting their way into prestigious universities, it matters a lot less for everybody else.  Since Danielle is clearly not college-bound material, as long as she makes an effort, and does her best, that's good enough.

Frankly, I'd rather her come home with lousy grades and see that she really tried, than to see her get excellent grades in programs that aren't challenging her.

As for the crisis in her elective class, the failing grade was a direct result of her lack of motivation, and her refusals to do what was expected of her in a timely basis.

One of my readers, seemed to think that we were responsible for Danielle's failure, but it's obvious from his/her remarks that I haven't communicated everything that has transpired.  This reader had several important points incorrect, so I think I need to clarify a few things.

Schnitzelbank wrote:

So it's one thing to battle over homework, but when you pull your kid out of school for two weeks, that's two weeks worth of instruction she missed. So of course there's going to be some extra catching up to do. This isn't just homework - it's 8 or 10 days (or whatever) worth of seat time, instruction, discussion, focused practice, remediation, assessment AND homework she missed out on. She came back with nothing done, and the class didn't stop, because you were on vacation. If she didn't have step 1, 2, and 3 completed, there was no way she could start rolling with step 4 on her first day back.

First off, I think it's hugely important to point out that Danielle wasn't out of school for two weeks. Although we were gone as a family for ten days, she only missed a total of four school days.  It's probably also worth pointing out that the class in question is one of those nearly impossible-to-fail elective classes.  This is a class, like art or physical education, where you are guaranteed to get a passing grade if you do the work, have a decent attitude, and turn in your assignments.  This isn't a heavy-duty academic class where one has to listen to an important lecture, retain the information, and later recall it for tests or quizzes.

She was completely over her head. And you do bear some responsibility in this, voluntarily pulling her out of school for two weeks to go on vacation, without setting up time and space to do her work, without being informed about what needed to be done, without playing the role of teacher a bit, as the rest of her class is continuing on without her, and she needs to keep up.

While we were on vacation, Danielle did have the time and space to do her work, if she chose to do it.  Although this trip was supposed to be a vacation, it was planned in advance to be a working vacation.  The four days Danielle was absent from school coincided with the days that I had to work.  Since my job requires a certain amount of concentration, I had my laptop and work materials set up in an quiet area so that I could accomplish the tasks that were expected. Danielle had every opportunity to avail herself of that time and space, but she refused to do so. 

Danielle was certainly not the only child present who was expected to spend part of our vacation on academics.  Our friends, who were camping with us, expected their kids to do some schoolwork while we vacationed.  Their preschoolers worked on letter-recognition skills, while their kindergartener worked on a packet sent home by his teachers.

There was plenty of time and opportunity for Danielle to get work done if she'd agreed to sit down and do it.

As much as Danielle's homeroom teacher might like to insist that her absence is what caused the deficiency in the elective class, I'm not convinced that is truly the case.  We'd made sure to give the school plenty of notice, in advance of our departure, so that they could put together a packet of work.  Mr. S., the elective class teacher, sent nothing home, other than a directive asking Danielle to take a few photographs of things related to the class subject.  No assignment sheets or textbooks were sent home.

Although I agree that we are certainly responsible for setting up an environment to succeed, we can't be held accountable if a teacher doesn't send something home when they've been warned in advance that our child will be absent for four days.  We also can't be held responsible for things Danielle "forgot on purpose," such as her reading book.  We even made an attempt to retrieve it while we were gone, but the day we selected turned out to be a minimum day we didn't know about, and the classroom was locked.

At some point in this process, Danielle has to own the responsibility for getting her school work done. 

I feel like if a parent isn't willing to play a supportive role during school-time vacation, then maybe you shouldn't take your kids on vacation during the school year. Or if you're going to pull her out, and refuse to do structured, guided, school-related activities during those missing school days, then you're going to have to accept that she is going to fall behind and fail, and not heap a bunch of consequences on top of it.

This wasn't a case of us refusing to give her the opportunity to do her work, or give her help when she asked for it.  This was a case of Danielle simply not doing the work, even when reminded.  And as I've said before, I'm not going to get into a knock-down, drag-out fight with my kid over schoolwork.  She was told, before we left, what the expectations were, her teachers were given an opportunity to send home assignments, and Danielle had plenty of time to sit down and do her work while the adults and other children were also working.  She opted not to do so.

I understand that your daughter has special needs and is combative with you. I get that. So that's why it's all the more puzzling why you'd pull her out of school in the beginning of the school year, when she needs the consistency of routine, the structure, and the format of the school day.

I have to take some exception to the the idea of "consistency of routine, the structure and the format of the school day."  I take issue with this because Danielle is not enrolled in a regular school program, and other than the fact that she gets on a bus at certain times of the day to travel to and from school, I think her day has very little structure.  At present, she spends the the majority of her day sitting in a classroom working on self-paced, independent study.  In all honesty, there's not a lot of difference between her current school program, and when she was attending the supervised home-school program, other than the location and the faces of the people who are helping her.

Given that Danielle spent nearly four years in a supervised home-study program, we all thought that she could manage to get her work done for a total of four measly days.  Obviously, we were wrong on that score.

As for the timing of our trip, it had everything to do with my work schedule and where the Labor Day holiday fell.  Unfortunately, I work at a very demanding job, and my ability to take time off doesn't always coincide with times that Danielle is not in school.  I've learned from many years of self-employment that if there is an opportunity to take time off, I need to grab it while I can. More often than I'd like, even time off I've scheduled in advance with my clients has been interrupted, and I've been called back to work.  This seems to be especially true during the summer, Thanksgiving weekend, and the December holidays.

Now in this case we knew in advance it was supposed to be a working vacation, though it ended up being more work and less vacation because one of our clients ended up having a crisis.  Unfortunately for us, by the time the problems appeared, we'd already made non-refundable reservations, so we went anyway, figuring that working remotely from a nice place would be better than not going at all.

It sounds like you had a great vacation - you blogged that she had a great time and didn't have any meltdowns. School wasn't mentioned at all in your blog. Did you read through her extended absence packet of work and were you familiar with what needed to be done? Did you set up a consistent time and place for her to do her work? Did you provide some instruction or guided practice for the skills that were being presently taught back at home?

Danielle's homeroom and elective teachers did not send home any sort of packet.  The homeroom teacher told Danielle to continue working through her books as she had been at school, and the elective teacher directed her to take some photographs.  Danielle didn't do much of her core curriculum because she "forgot" her reading book, and she was very unwilling to sit down and to the rest.  The photographs got taken, only because FosterEema practically dragged her outside with the camera.

So did I read through her packet?  No, because none was sent.  Did she have a consistent time and place to work?  Yes, absolutely. Did I provide instruction or guidance for skills that are taught at home?  No, because Danielle's materials are self-paced, and there is no formal instruction.  She is expected to read the material, to do the work, and ask someone if she has questions.

You set her up for failure here. And I do think you have a responsibility here to help her at this point. Especially because she has special needs, she doesn't know where to begin. This isn't the same as a homework battle, she missed two weeks of school. You need to provide the instruction, discussion, guided practice and remediation she missed. Then she'll be able to do her homework on her own, and you can back off to your usual hands-off approach. Then it's her chance to make the right decisions. But you have to start with teaching her what she missed. That's what the teacher meant by "getting her back up to speed."

I absolutely disagree with this assessment.  This is yet another case where we gave Danielle plenty of opportunities to succeed, to do the things she was supposed to do, but she opted not to do them.  Sure, I could have spent a significant portion of our vacation nagging Danielle to do her work, but it would have made the trip much less enjoyable for everyone.  And again, she didn't miss ten days of school; she missed four.  A nasty cold or a bout of the flu could have taken her out longer than that.

As for the eight missing assignments from her elective class, it's not at all clear that they were assigned during the four days Danielle was absent, given that her instructor didn't send any work home.  I am skeptical that an instructor would assign that much work over four days, but even if he did, why would he withhold it when told in advance that she would be gone?

Now it's certainly possible that Danielle lied about her assignments, but her elective teacher didn't give me any indication that he'd sent work home with her.  When we asked her about the missing assignments, she claimed that she "didn't know" the work was supposed to be done and handed in. 

I have no way to know if Danielle is telling the truth or making up a convenient story in the hopes that she'll escape doing work she doesn't want to do, but she is the one who must hold ownership over getting her work done.

What I found so frustrating in all of this is that clearly Danielle was capable of getting the work done.  She did get it done, at school, even though her homeroom teacher sent us a frantic note saying it simply wasn't possible to catch her up to the point of having a passing grade.

Clearly, there's been a huge failure in communication.  We should have been told about the missing assignments long before we were (we didn't hear until weeks later) and clearly there should be better communication between Danielle's special classroom and her elective teacher.  I'm still confused as to why the classroom aides told us work was finished that the elective teacher claimed not to have.

Whether this is a communication problem, or Danielle concealing the truth, I can't be responsible for her school work.  I can't go to school with her every day to find out what assignments her teachers have given, and I can't force her to do the work anyway.  At some point in life, Danielle is going to have to learn to be responsible for things, and it's not my job to helicopter in and make sure she does everything.  She has to own that.

In just a bit more than two years, she will be 18 years old, and she will want to live as an independent adult.  If I keep swooping in, trying to manage her affairs for her, then she's not going to learn how to be responsible for herself.  This time, the problem was of relatively low consequence.  If she had gotten a failing grade on her mid-term report, the earth wouldn't go spinning out of orbit and crashing into the sun.  She would have gotten an F on her report card, she'd have to make up the work later in the term, and that would be the end of it.  If she didn't make it up and was still failing, then she'd receive the logical consequence of not passing the course and losing out on those graduation credits.

In two years, she'll be faced with problems like showing up to work on time, managing her finances, and juggling her own personal schedule.  She is going to have to manage her life, because she's not impaired enough that she needs to be placed under adult guardianship or would qualify for disability.  She's in the unfortunate grey area of being too smart to qualify for any real help, but being challenged enough that her life is guaranteed to be difficult.

And there comes a point where I have to stand back and let her start taking responsibility for her own life.  If we keep helicoptering in, nagging her in a futile attempt to avoid problems, or rescuing her when she fails, we won't be doing her any favors.

What we have here is really two separate problems: 1) Danielle's failure to do her core work while we were on vacation, and 2) her failure to turn in assignments for her elective class after we returned.

At the end of the day, I think we did make the right choice in taking a relatively hands-off approach to this problem.  Danielle did manage to get enough work done so that she has a passing grade, and that's good enough.

What I've learned in life is that nobody really gives a shit about grades much past graduation.  Even the fact that I graduated high school and have a Bachelor of Science degree matters less than what I can do.  When it comes to success in life and the job market, what matters most are the skills, experience and knowledge you bring to the table.  Nobody gives a rip what your grade in your high school biology class was.


  1. Oh for Pete's sake. It was awfully nice of you to spell this all out for Schnitzel. I think the family time away from any sort of school battle was FAR more important than the few assignments that may have been missed and it seems (in spite of a bit of drama) were easily made up. At some point school will go away, for better or worse, but you will still have a relationship with Danielle, for better or worse. Time focused on relationship minus conflict can only benefit her. There are so many difficulties in your family's day to day, (whether by choice or illness) how lovely to be able to have melt down free days, even if it means going away during scheduled school time.

  2. I don't disagree that having family time is important, and a very healing time for this family. But pulling your kid out of school early in the school year for a vacation might not be good timing (thanks for clarifying the school days. You had said in an earlier post, that you were gone for 10).

    But obviously this IS important to y'all, as witnessed by all the posts about Danielle's school work.

    Another question: what did Danielle do then, during the time you (and the other kids) were working?

    Moving forward...

    1) I would question the teachers immediately, if they fail to send home a packet for a pre-arranged absence. Clearly, there isn't "nothing" happening during those four days, those should be accounted for somehow.

    2) Is it possible Danielle completed the work (as witnessed by the aides) and failed to turn it in? I have students do this all the time. It's all part of that self-fulfilled prophecy of failure. Failure is easier than success for kids that seem to thrive on chaos and have not experienced much academic success (for a whole myriad of reasons)

    3) Could you get an extra set of textbooks for home? This would bypass the whole "forgot my book" excuse. Books are here and there. I don't see this strategy as helicopter parenting, rather, putting the scaffolding in place that many teenagers need. Clearly Danielle is not ready to be on her own at 18. Heck, most adolescents aren't ready to be on their own at 18. She needs some extra supports in place.

    In the end, I'm sure you want to give her every opportunity to be successful. It sounds like you are so very frustrated. I'm sorry for your troubles.

  3. I do not fight the school battle at all anymore. In the end, as you pointed out, it's not worth it. If my kids ever want to get serious about their education, they will....when they want it. If they've done poorly in high school, there is night school. Junior colleges have remedial classes and from there they can move on.

    A vacation for your benefit will go much farther and do everyone more good than anything. Please don't feel you have to justify your decisions to us out here in blogworld!


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