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Mary Sheehy Moe: As Parents, We Must Let Children Suffer Consequences Of Actions

“Mary,” my husband admonished me as I fumed after a game in which our daughter played at most 2 of the allotted 32 minutes. “Not. One. Word. We may never have any bragging rights in this gym, but we will have this: We’ll be the only parents in this school’s history who have never – ever – complained to a coach.”

I tell you this story, especially you parents, to acknowledge from the outset that I’m no stranger to the impulse to protect/intercede/go postal for your child. Fortunately for my children’s teachers and coaches, I had a sensible husband to restrain me. And my own teaching memories.

My third year teaching, I gave a student a B for the quarter. It was just a mathematical thing. Cal had earned A’s and B’s on everything … except one pop quiz on a reading assignment. Not having read the chapter, he flunked the quiz flat. That one F made the difference between an A and a B for 2nd Quarter.

Unbeknownst to me, that one B meant Cal wouldn’t be valedictorian. Cal’s parents demanded a meeting. The dad came in smoking like Vesuvius, his ashen wife in tow. I walked them through the math and told them I too felt terrible that Cal wouldn’t be valedictorian. He was a great kid. But I couldn’t change his grade for that reason. 

The air was electric with tension. I was so grateful my principal was at my side – sympathetic, but reminding the parents, “This will be an important lesson for Cal, more important than being valedictorian.” 

Years later, a student didn’t want to be in my class. She had wanted my counterpart down the hall, but she got me. She communicated her resentment through exasperated sighs and exaggerated eye-rolls all period long, day after day. I soldiered on. Then one day after class, she handed me a note from her father.

It’s funny. I don’t remember precisely what the note said. Something about how dumb my assignment on Thoreau was. And something about how tempted he was to teach me a lesson – with a gun. 

I took the note to my principal, who assured me he’d meet with the man immediately. I insisted on being there. I figured “Camille” had been playing her dad like a Stradivarius, filling him with tales of woe featuring the ogress Moe. I wanted him to see I was just a girl, standing in front of a student, asking her to learn something.

That’s what happened. At the meeting, I explained the assignment long enough to realize that being Thoreau-ly bored ran in the family. Eventually, the dad said he was just kidding about the gun and we all agreed it wasn’t very funny. A resigned Camille came back to class and we resumed our lives of quiet desperation.

How differently those interactions would play out today! My grades would be posted online daily and the minute Cal’s F hit the screen, I’d be getting emails from Vesuvius, assuring me Cal would do whatever extra credit I required, whatever it took to put a lock on that A. 

I would explain I didn’t accept extra credit as an alternative to a bad grade, and in endless ensuing emails I would maintain that stance in the face of such compelling arguments as what other teachers do, the harms of high-stakes pop-quizzing, and of course, the valedictorian card. The inevitable meeting with the principal would follow, wherein the issue under discussion wouldn’t be Cal’s failing a quiz, but my refusal to allow extra credit. My principal might turn to me and remark, “You don’t accept extra credit? That seems harsh.” 

Whatever the meeting’s outcome, an erosion was well underway. Whenever I was grading an essay, those parents and the principal and the boy sprinting toward valedictorianism would weigh on my objectivity. Did I want to be the one who tripped Cal in the final stretch, knowing the volcanic tendencies of his father and suspecting my principal would wilt? Nope.

As for Camille, today she’d probably never land in my class. A “personality conflict” would be diagnosed before we ever met each other. If she did end up there, she’d be filming me surreptitiously on her cell phone and trolling my social media, hoping for some damning gaffe.  Any beef her dad had with me would be delivered via email, with carefully selected screen shots posted on social media. An easily resolvable misunderstanding would devolve into a spectator sport on Facebook in which I, as a teacher bound by privacy laws, got to be tackle dummy.

“Most parents are wonderful,” a former teacher told me. “But too many simply can’t let their kids suffer the consequences of their mistakes. And the lengths some parents will go … well, it’s abusive. Over time, it robs you of your idealism.”

It robs students too, as my first principal understood so well. Life hands you bosses you don’t like, starting line-ups you don’t make, failures extra credit cannot erase, and people whose love you lose when you exploit it. Painful as they are to watch as a parent, mistakes and disappointments awaken young people to the responsibilities – and possibilities! – of a life well-lived. And as someone once noted, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

Mary Sheehy Moe is writing in this space about the reasons we’re losing teachers in Great Falls and elsewhere. If you have a story on that subject you’d like to share, please contact Moe by email at mary.sheehy.moe@gmail.com.

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