Some days I just want to smack people.

Irascible Professor guest blogger and high school teacher Elise Vogel lets fly at the culture of parent complaint in public school education:

Nothing in my teacher education courses had prepared me to deal with parents who would object that I assign homework, or who would take their objections not just to me, but to the principal, the superintendent, and the school board. It’s not just the existence of homework that raises the ire of these parents; it’s anything that provides an academic challenge to their children. … All these parents want is that which is safe and comfortable for their children. This includes a curriculum where there are no real expectations of the students.

Elise Vogel, "Stop teaching my kid"

When I read this, I thought of every student who’s ever demanded or pleaded for a higher grade in my class. I recalled their demeanor: some arrogant ("Well, I think I deserve an A"), some polite, some bewildered, some desperate, telling me how they have to get all As, they have to get into law school, they have to keep their scholarships, a B will ruin their lives forever, or — most upsettingly — their parents will be furious if they get a B-plus. (The last is not an exaggeration, by the way.) And then I thought, "So that’s where they come from." They’ve grown up with their parents storming down to their schools and pitching hissy fits over every low grade. Or they’ve grown up with the threat of "Make straight A’s or else" hanging over their heads. Or possibly both.

I wasn’t prepared for grade complaints either. I always did well in school, but as an undergraduate I sometimes got B’s — the 9:30 a.m. calculus class in which I always fell asleep comes to mind. My parents didn’t disown me for it or lodge a complaint. The one time I seriously considered going to a professor to complain about a grade, I thought "No, that’ll just make me look like a whiny brat," and sucked up the grade in question. When I started teaching, I mistakenly assumed that my students would all be like me — an assumption I’ve slowly abandoned, and mostly I’m glad I was mistaken. (In retrospect, I was probably a pain in the ass at eighteen; I wouldn’t want, now, to face a roomful of pedantic, socially awkward, tongue-tied little me’s.) But I never quite got used to the grade-complaint phenomenon. I used to think it was a sign that Kids These Days were getting brasher and snottier; now I’m more inclined to wonder about their parents. After all, if Mom and Dad demand A’s for you, why wouldn’t you grow up feeling entitled to demand them for yourself?

And I just don’t get that. What is with these parents who yell at the school board? I mean, did they never figure out that screwing up is actually quite instructive? Did they miss out on the whole adulthood thing themselves and stay stuck at the maturity level of a nine-year-old sulking because the mean, nasty teacher gave them a mean, nasty test? Do they not pause to think about the example they’re setting for their offspring? "Okay, Junior, you’re not allowed to make a mistake and learn from it. Not ever. Remember, your having a 4.0 GPA is more important than your actually learning anything." I want to whack them all over the head with my Oxford Classical Dictionary and then start a mass "get rid of grades altogether" movement in universities all across the country. It’ll never really happen, I know, but until then I’ll content myself with the dictionary-whacking scenario.

Of course, the fact that I have papers to grade this week is not improving my mood any. Down with grading! To the barricades!

(Side note: I’ve been drafting some version or other of this ever since I read a cluster of posts from Russell Arben Fox and Crooked Timber on why kids don’t walk to school anymore, and how that connects to the "micromanagement" style of child-rearing. Oh, and this Atlantic article rings depressingly true. Poor kids.)

(Side note the second: When I say "parents," I’m not lumping all parents into the same category here. I’m only referring to the kind of parents who flip out because Susie has to do homework or Johnny got a B. Just wanted to clarify that for the benefit of all the regular commenters on this blog who are parents.)

UPDATE, 3/12/04: And there’s even a magazine for overly involved parents who want to "advocate" for grade inflation for their college-age children! See: "Boomer Parents Still Protesting on Campus," a feature on the newly-launched magazine College Parent and its editor Steve Peri. See especially the following:

The Greatest Generation may have practiced a hands-off approach to parenting, but their baby boomer offspring are often overly involved in every detail of their kids’ lives. This is partly because of the revolution in communications, which lets parents stay in close contact through cell phones and email. Some parents go so far as editing drafts of their children’s papers and protesting low grades, Peri says.

And he wants to encourage them? *groans* *bangs head repeatedly on desk*

6 Responses to “Some days I just want to smack people.”

  1. MisterBS says:

    I’m a parent, but by all that is sacred, those people send me into a blind, incoherent fugue, and they deserve to be collectively dope-slapped and berated by a platoon of Army drill instructors for about six days.
    Even at the university, I have had parents approach me, and it blows me away. Fortunately, I can simply say “FERPA” and they go away, but the fact that these students are so mired in their “Daddy will fix it” prolonged adolescence makes me want to shake them.

  2. Ben Heumann says:

    A friend of mine is a TA for one of those classes that engineers are required to take outside of engineering. After the last assignment was graded, at least 15 students came to her complaining about their grades. She looked over their assignments and asked them if they had been to class or read the course material. And here’s the kickers: Five answered no! (She remarked that she had been too genenerous by giving any of them part marks)

  3. Duckling says:

    The only time I ever complained to a lecturer was when he wrongly wrote on my work that I obviously hadn’t done the reading. I’m sure I looked like a snotty teenager but he deserved it for assuming that I was lazy rather than thick.

  4. ben wolfson says:

    Odd—I’d prefer to be thought lazy than thick (but then I am lazy).

  5. carla says:

    A student got a low-ish grade on a paper. I patiently explained what he had done wrong, what he could have done differently. He came to see me for the second paper, and in fact wrote a somewhat better paper–but not an A paper. He said, “But I worked hard on it!” to which I responded, w/o thinking, “That doesn’t make it an A paper.”

  6. carla says:

    I used to teach only discussion classes–and I made participation something like 20% of the grade, making it impossible for someone who didn’t show/participate to get an A.