Education Opinion

A Little Story About ‘Excuse-Making’

By Nancy Flanagan — May 27, 2011 3 min read
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This is just a little story.

One of those anecdotes—like Ronald Reagan’s welfare queen, buying tenderloin with food stamps—that has the power to become apocryphal, passed around in the grocery store or between parents in the bleachers at Little League games. Evidence of something “everyone knows.” This time, it’s being passed around by Patrick Riccards, whose bio labels him “one of the nation’s leading education communications strategists” and who calls himself the Eduflack.

Riccards shares this story about a mom attending end-of-year parent conferences. I’ll use the Eduflack’s words, since the facts he shares—all we get to know about the story—are important:

The teacher began by focusing on math skills, talking about successes and areas that needed work. As part of the conversation, the teacher made an off-handed comment. In reflecting that the student did not enjoy doing a specific math assignment, she noted, "maybe he would do it in Spanish, though."
This isn't the first comment like this. A month or so, when reflecting on the same student's ELA abilities, the same teacher told the father that the student's reading wasn't quite up to where some of the other students in class were. So the teacher's inquiry, "perhaps it is because of the Spanish language at home."

My first thought was: Is the teacher fishing, not knowing whether the student lives in a home where Spanish is the primary language, but not wanting to ask outright? Those can be delicate conversations, so perhaps the teacher is trying gently pull out some information that will help her find more effective strategies? But then Riccards says this, about the boy:

No, he's not ESOL. He doesn't work from an IEP. Doesn't come from a low-income household. But his ancestors also did not come over on the Mayflower. As a result, the teacher's failure to connect with the student must be a cultural thing. It must be a language thing. It can't be a breakdown in teaching or instruction, it must be a Spanish thing.

Now that’s quite a leap. Simply asking a parent if her child would do better if an assignment were in Spanish becomes “excuse-making” for the teacher’s failure to connect, a “breakdown” in her teaching?

Next, the Eduflack says these things about the teacher in question. Quoting:

I'm willing to write this off as an isolated incident from an ignorant teacher.
I also realize that much of teaching is learned behavior. The teacher in question asks such questions because she was either taught it, or she has learned it from colleagues or mentors.
She decided to diagnose students without the benefit of data, information, or common sense.
In trying to justify her own struggles in connecting with a particular student (or class of students), she managed to even inject a little bit of racism into the student evaluation process.
I feel for both the student and the parents in question. They deserve better, and can just look forward to a new teacher in a new classroom with a new approach and fewer stereotypes come September. I feel for those students who will be passing through said teacher's classroom in the years to come.
Who is to say she isn't making similar comments in the classroom, comments that other students are picking up and using themselves to drive divisions between "us" and "them?"
We should have high expectations for all students and all teachers. We certainly should tell our teachers that they can't make excuses—particularly racially discriminatory ones—when they fail to connect or properly educate a child.

So let’s see. One of the nation’s leading communications strategists calls a teacher “ignorant,” asserts that she is unable to “connect” with a student for instruction, then accuses her of “putting the blame squarely on the home environment” when she tries to find a better way to reach the child, asking about language preferences in a parent-teacher conference.

Next Eduflack enlarges the meaning of this tale to include her teaching mentors and colleagues, saying this is “learned behavior"—this diagnosing without data is something that teachers routinely do. He speculates that she’s making racially discriminatory remarks, suggesting that “similar comments in the classroom” may be infecting all the students in her class.

Given the facts as presented—these feel like some hugely unwarranted accusations. Asking about a child’s preferred language is actually very different from “racial discrimination.” Saying that teachers learn to discriminate from their mentors damns the whole profession. And printing the story does nothing to improve outcomes for this child.

It’s just a little story. Accompanied by a whole boatload of assumptions.

And I said so, in a comment posted at the blog. Which drew this response from another commenter:

You just proved Eduflack's point. You're a veteran teacher, right? When presented with this story, you immediately defended the teacher and tried to shift blame over the parent. Teachers are not infallable (sic). For every great teacher there is often a lousy one. To improve instruction, we have to be willing to acknowledge some teachers need help.

Definitely, some teachers need help. There are plenty of teachers that nobody could defend. But I really don’t see any blame to assess in this story. A teacher tells parents their child has strengths and weaknesses, muses about what to do next. Aren’t these kinds of honest conversations the key to improving learning, teamwork between parents and teachers?

You might wonder if I’d feel differently if this were my child. I can actually speak to that question. My son is Korean—born in Korea, and adopted as an infant. People have said some truly clueless, non-PC things to us. A stranger once approached me as I pushed him in his stroller and said “So your husband must be Oriental, right?” As he grew older, Alex threatened to get a T-shirt saying “Not All Asians Are Good at Math.”

I’ve always seen insensitive remarks about my child as an opportunity to educate, rather than make snap judgments and criticize.

I was disappointed to see a man identified as a leader in education communications use this story as support for another cheap inanity we’re hearing more these days: Good teachers can reach any child, with or without resources, and if not, they’re excuse-mongering.

It’s just a little story. Right?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.