Posted by: zhak39 | January 29, 2006

Clear Channels

On Friday I had a meeting with one of Guilford County Schools Support Officers regarding an ongoing difficulty that one of my boys has been having in school. What a shock to me when she chastised me for not communicating with the principal of the school. Apparently the principal had told her that I was not in contact with them–despite the 96 e-mails that I have in hard copies as well as electronic backups. In the interest of doing everything that I can to make this situation better for my child, I decided to sit down once again, e-mail the principal and reclarify the issue. In preparing to do so, I re-read all of the emails I had previously sent. That’s when I found the following that I wrote on December 12. Except for taking out direct quotes from the principal and explaining in brackets what she said and deleting names, I present the following for constructive criticism. Please, friends, tell me–have I lost my objectivity? How can I be more clear?

Dear Ms [prinicpal’s name],

In the interest both of clarity and for Chris’ sake, let’s try again.

In our phone conversation I expressed that I felt that after working for nearly a half an academic year with Chris’ math teacher, I felt that a move to a different classroom may be appropriate for both his personal and academic well being. This was after Chris and I met with his team, we made commitments to a plan but that plan was not followed through. This was not an isolated incident but the latest in a series of inconsistencies in planning and execution stemming from the very first weeks of school. You said that a move was not possible since placement in classes was based on aptitude and EOG scores but invited me and Chris to meet with you and his teacher to discuss flexibility within the currently placed teaching strategy. You also asked if Chris was ‘EC’ and mentioned that in middle school sometimes adjustments for ‘EC’ children were necessary. I told you that Chris is in the AL program–I didn’t know anything about ‘EC.’

When we met you asked me to state teaching strategies that had worked in the past. I expressed some confusion since I am not an educational professional. I can speak for Chris as a parent but my knowledge of the latest teaching practices is limited. I had recently spoken with a math teacher who had explained to me a theory currently used in math instruction where a teacher gives a short mini-lesson, allows students to work in small groups to explain concepts to each other then the teacher once again goes over the lesson. I believed that this is the strategy that is in place in Chris’ classroom.

I explained that it is my understanding that this strategy takes a great deal of coordination and monitoring on the part of the teacher and co-operation on the part of the students. I gave examples when this was not working for Chris as he was not getting enough direct explanation on the concepts from the teacher and that his peers were not always cooperative. I cited at least one instance when Chris had asked a peer partner for assistance only to be told “I know how to do it and I am not telling you.”

In regards to your statement in yesterday’s email–

[the principal claims that during the latest conference I had identified a series of teaching practices that happen to be what they claim to use in Chris’ classroom and that even though they used these very best strategies, Chris was not making the grade]

First–I could not quite say what you claimed I expressed because (again) I am not an educational professional so I don’t know what some of these things are. I do know that (again) it takes more cooperation, coordination, and monitoring for this model to work. This is just not happening. As well, as stated in the team conference, Chris has been isolated from peer learning groups and peer partners so he has missed out on these opportunities to implement important portions of this strategy.

Second–Chris has been ready and willing to go to tutoring for reteaching and has been denied the opportunity or he has gone to tutoring and has not been offered assistance. He has brought in his work but offered no instruction. In the last two weeks of attempting to access reteaching he has recieved instruction only one time. His experience of tutoring more closely resembles a study hall where he is given time and space to try to work out algebra by himself.

Third–when you asked what strategy might better this situation, I said ‘direct instruction.’ Because (again) I am not a teaching professional, I would like to clarify what I mean as ‘direct instruction’ rather than what might or might not be known as ‘direct instruction’ in any educational strategy literature. I mean that Chris needs someone who knows how to do algebra to explain to Chris how to do algebra.

In regard to Chris asking for help–

[the principal notes that during the conference I had asked what Chris needs to do to get help and the teacher said he needed to raise his hand and ask a question]

I explained to you that Chris has been asking for help since the beginning of school. His method of asking for help is to say to the teacher “I don’t understand.” I did not ask [teacher’s name] what the etiquette in the classroom was (raising hand during class) but what her expectation was for questions. She said that the student needed to have a very specific question, for example–

“I do not understand whether to use the associative or distributive property in this function equation.”

I explained that Chris has so many gaps in his understanding of algebra that it is not possible for him to form questions with this specificity. By gaps in his understanding I mean the concepts that he did not understand previously which were not explained clearly or were not retaught and that are necessary to perform the next set of operations in the sequence of Algebra I.

I have found evidence of these gaps in his quizzes. I don’t understand why his teacher cannot look at his quizzes and realize where Chris is having difficulty and explain to him the correct procedures.

I explained that “Chris doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” This means that he thinks he is doing operations correctly because he doesn’t know that he isn’t doing them correctly until he gets his test or quiz back and the answer is marked incorrect.

Before we met last week you said that we were meeting to discuss flexibility within the parameters of the current teaching practice in order to better assist Chris in accessing Algebra I concepts. During the meeting you once again asked about ‘EC’ and explained that this refers to ‘exceptional children’ which I understand to mean children whose capacity to reach their potential is hampered to a degree outside of normal parameters. You said that you wanted to consult a program administrator for exceptional children. I did not then and I do not now consider this a necessary step and stated that at the time. There is nothing in Chris’ performance during elementary school or his first year in middle school to suggest that Chris is ‘EC.’

Chris is frustrated because his needs are not being met in the classroom. I was under the impression that last week’s meeting was part of a process to develop flexibility in the classroom to meet his needs now. Chris needed his needs met two months ago. He has been damaged by the classroom practices. He has been humiliated and demoralized. Chris does not need for a team of people to observe him and pore through paperwork and spend more time talking. This will only extend his suffering and further erode his confidence and sense of self as a learner.

So. Now that we understand that a prolonged study by the SSST* is not necessary, please let me know what flexibility will be worked into the current teaching strategy in order to better meet Chris’ needs and when will this begin to be implemented?


Chris’ mom

*SSST is the School Student Support Team which examines students and when appropriate refers them to Psychological Services for labeling (mentally retardation, learning disability, emotional/behavioral disturbance) and special services


  1. I’d take hard copies of all 96 emails and dump them on that SST’s desk and ask her if that was sufficient contact for them to get off their butts and do something! No you have not lost your objectivity!

  2. Thank you both so much for your feedback. It’s very helpful.

    Thanks also, Joe, for making me laugh this morning. That helps more than anything.

  3. Oy… been through this same process, even with the same subject… it’s as though they don’t understand that learning is cummulative – if you don’t understand one priciple and the class moves on to the next, you’re left where you are and get progressively more ‘lost’ as to how to do anything that the rest of the classs is doing.

    joseph has it exactly right – the system is set up in away that prevents any flexibility. Your child must conform, and if they’re unable, they get a label – and STILL get very little help, because the overall effect of the label is to lower other people’s expectations… in other words, they call them “EC” kids, and decide that your kid is too dumb (or whatever politically correct phrase you’d like to insert here) to learn the neccessary objectives, so why bother trying to teach it to them. The staff is generally unwilling to make any extra effort where any one child is concerned.

    My son was so frustrated that he finally gave up trying, earned himself a reputation for being disrespectful (because he treated them the same way they treated him) and quit as soon as he could.

    It seems that teachers no longer care about the individual, and barely care enough to meet overall standardized requirements. And without getting too political here, I truly believe that Bush’s NCLB standards are largely to blame.

    And as far as “EC” goes? It’s (in my opinion anyway) one of the worst things you can let them do to your child, because they treat the EC kids like losers who are unwilling to make the grade.

    Good luck, I sincerely hope that you get some resolution, for your child’s sake. Sorry for being so long winded, it’s a subject I get a little overly upset about I guess.

  4. In dealing with bureaucracies, it’s best to start spreading your problems around until you find “the prime mover” AKA the person who gets it done. In the case of a school, it can be another teacher, the school secretary, the principal (rarely the case), someone in the superintendent’s office, or, even a motviated school board member.

    I learned about this while having to transfer from school to school during my college carrer. It was probably the most useful skill I learned now that many of the clients I deal with are lumbering bureaucracies.

    My personal favorite story was this one kid I knew in Ohio was tired of the Registrar’s office constantly interpreting the rules to justify their delays. So, after his last morning class, he would go to the waiting area of the Registrar’s office, and eat a 12″ tuna sub…but he would only consume 4-6″ and leave the remainder in the trash nearest the window where the receptionst was. This stunk up the office in a little under 15 minutes. Being state school in a union-controlled area, job functions were strictly controlled. So, the registar’s office staff had to wait for the janitorial staff to get off of lunch to come down and throw out the offending sandwich. It would be a good solid hour before they would show up.

    After a day or two of this, He then sent the person in the Registrar’s office an e-mail explaining how he too knew how to work within the rules and their response to him was just as offending as Subway’s more odorferous creations.

    His file was straightened out in a week.

  5. Seems like this is a more longstanding problem than I thought it was. While it’s nice to know that we have company it makes me really disgusted that professionals are not meeting their obligations and are covering for each other and blaming the children.

    Monday afternoon I will be dealing with the bureaucracy once again. Thus far I have spread the word past the school to the directors of curriculum, psychological services, guidance services, and magnet schools. I have worked with school support and will meet the middle school instructional improvement officer. I have written to our school board representative and while many of these people have been articulate and knowledgeable, the job is still not being done.

    Maybe I will stop by subway and pick up some tuna sandwiches….

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