Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Case of the Missing Homework

MANY OF THE BIGGEST NAMES in education reform insist that the only sure way to improve what happens in schools is to “hold teachers accountable.”

I worked with a few bad teachers during my day. Nevertheless, I don’t think I ever looked down the long hallway at school and thought, “You know, the main problem here is all the bad teachers.”

There was never any real evidence that educators were the main obstacle in the path of true learning.

Student reluctance to do the work necessary to earn a quality education seemed to be a far more important factor. And I don’t mean my students were all lazy. Not at all. Not at all. I was fortunate to teach thousands of hard-working kids. Still, I also discovered that a significant minority had a tendency to coast along, unless some teacher fired them with a desire to learn that they might not already have. 

            Or gave them a push.

            I knew what that was like when I was young. I knew a push is sometimes required.

Indeed, somewhere around the age of thirteen, my brain ceased functioning in any meaningful fashion and I spent my time in junior high and high school doing the least possible work I could manage. I was oddly proud of myself—to finish in the bottom half of my Revere High School graduating class. 

            I had a perfectly good mind. I just didn’t care to use it. (See proof below.)

At least I was doing well in American history and gym.

Fortunately, I discovered the great powers of motivation in 1968, at Parris Island, after dropping out of college to join the Marines.

When I became a teacher in 1976 I made it a point to make it difficult for kids to loaf in my class and hard for them to fail. I set high standards. But if students failed tests, I called home and asked parents to ensure their children studied and retook the test after school, or before school, or during lunch.

I didn’t average grades, the first F, and say, a B+ on the second try. 

           If a young man or young woman got a 92 B+ on the second test that was the grade that was inked in the book. 

I USED A SIMILAR APPROACH when it came to homework. I used to round up kids who owed me work, at lunch, or during study hall, like a cowboy roping strays. I’d bring in “failing” (i. e. not working) students and put them to work. I would agree to stay after school, or come in early, any time kids fell behind in class.

What I would not tolerate was lack of effort. (See my grades, above.)

In any case, former students might agree, I probably got mad more often if they didn’t use their talents than for all other reasons combined.

In third period one morning I called for everyone to turn in a set of questions that were due. Before I could manage to collect, Mrs. Kemen, one of the best young teachers I ever met, appeared at my classroom door to ask advice on some minor matter. I stepped into the hall to answer her question. Then I returned to class. When I asked again for homework not a single paper came up from the left side of the room. (I had student desks in a horseshoe seating arrangement. (See below.) Even Kyle, the most dependable kid in the class, said he forgot the assignment.
Seating chart used in my class. My post was at the open end of the horseshoe.

The middle section likewise produced zero papers.

“Unbelievable,” I muttered darkly.

When the right side of the room failed to produce a solitary paper, I slammed my grade book to the floor like a football coach who had just watched his defense give up a 99-yard touchdown pass.


With that I stomped out the door for effect. (I could always act mad with ease; I rarely was, in truth.) Like an actor considering how to do the next scene, I could reenter angry, or hurt, or adopt my cold, assassin’s voice. The only issue: Which reaction might convince a few teens to move in the desired direction?

To use their talents—not loaf.

I stepped back into the room and for a hundredth time tried to impress on my young charges that they needed to learn as much as they could, for their own good. I insisted that true learning required true effort. I went on in this way for two or three minutes, trying to stir a sense of resolve.

Finally, Kyle could stand no more. He yanked his homework out from under his notebook and waved it in triumph. Papers appeared from all directions and cheers filled the room.

“We love you, Mr. Viall,” Courtney called out merrily.

When everyone stopped laughing, including me, Kyle admitted having masterminded the ruse. 

Almost everyone had their homework; and as was so often the case, I was proud of my kids. 

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