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Teachers’ Bane: Students Who Don’t
Give a Damn, and Parents Who Reward Them

| March 19, 2012

His version of class time. (Dean Jarvey)

Jo Ann Nahirny, a teacher at Matanzas High School, is writing regular pieces from the trenches, reflecting on the challenges and experiences teachers and students face every day. Here’s her latest installment. Note: names indicated by an asterisk (*)  and minor identifying details have been changed.

7:27 a.m.  I sit impatiently in the Guidance Office, thinking of the dozens of essays I need to grade, the photocopies I have to deliver to the copy clerk and the parents I must call whose kids are doing poorly in English. The other teachers waiting with me take turns glancing at the clock, sighing.  Tim* and his parents were supposed to have been here at 7:15. Our planning period ends soon; we’re wasting time.

“They’re on their way up,” the secretary finally announces, poking her head through the door.

It’s past 7:35 by the time Tim’s parents navigate their way upstairs; their son isn’t with them.

“Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn*,” Mrs.  Needham* greets them. “I’m Tim’s guidance counselor. Where’s Tim? He really should attend this meeting.”

“He’s supposed to be here,” his mother says. “He caught a ride with friends before we left.”

The teacher sitting across from me rolls her eyes, clearly annoyed.  Together we’ve been down this road before, too many times to count, with too many students.

“I’ll text him,” Mr. Vaughn volunteers.

Tim bursts through the door three minutes later, offering no apology for his tardiness, just as his parents hadn’t offered any for theirs.

“Mr. and Mrs. Vaughn,” the guidance counselor begins, “We’ve requested this conference because Tim’s teachers are concerned about his progress. Tim’s failed some classes in the past and so he lacks sufficient credits be a junior, though this is his third year here. He may be looking at two more years in high school, meaning he wouldn’t graduate until he’s nearly 20 — and that’s if he brings his GPA up to 2.0 and if he passes the FCAT, and if he passes all his classes. Right now, he’s failing two.”

The conference continues as we each introduce ourselves, and provide copies of progress reports delineating Tim’s grades. Each teacher explains why Tim’s doing poorly.  The reasons range from his constant lethargy, to not turning in assignments, to arriving late frequently and socializing rather than working.

Next, Mrs. Needham addresses the student. “Tim, you’ve heard your teachers’ concerns; let’s try to make a plan to help you succeed.  First off, have you been attending our afterschool  tutoring to get help with your homework?”

He ignores her, rapt on the cell phone  he cradles beneath the table, his thumbs dancing across the tiny keyboard.

“Tim!”

“Huh?”

“This is a conference about you! Put that away please,” the guidance counselor suggests, clearly irate, as we stare incredulously at the parents’ failure to address their son’s rudeness.

“This is exactly what we see at home,” Tim’s mom laments. “Either he’s on the computer or texting.”

“I guess we’ll have to make some changes,” his father observes blankly, changes which clearly don’t include admonishing Tim or confiscating his cell phone.

The two-minute warning bell clangs, and we teachers bolt for the door.  As we exit, Tim yawns audibly, likely exhausted from his late-night forays on the online gaming sites I’ve overheard him blathering about with classmates rather than working.

I rush down the hall with one of Tim’s other teachers; more than 50 students loiter outside our doors, waiting to gain entry. By the time everyone sits down and begins the opening grammar practice, 10 valuable minutes of class time have elapsed.

“Mrs. Nahirny,” a student whispers, approaching my desk. “I came early to make up the quiz I missed Monday. I’ve been waiting since 7:45, but you weren’t here.”

“I’m sorry, Brian*,” I apologize. “My meeting went overtime. Come tomorrow morning. I’ll be here.”

The Nahirny Files:


I silently take attendance as students proofread and edit the paragraph on the screen; I scan my e-mail for anything I need to be aware of for the day ahead. The 13 messages already amassed overwhelm me, so I exit Outlook. Spending my so-called “planning period”  at Tim’s conference precluded me from preparing for the rest of day, and from being available for kids who want to learn, like Brian. I couldn’t help but ruminate about why I must spend so much time dealing with the issues of the same few kids, at the expense of the more than 100 other learners I ought to be focusing  on.  Is doing so fair to Brian?  Is it fair to your child?  Or to other students I wasn’t available for that morning?  Why are things this way?

Quite simply, because of our national and state educational priorities.   “No Child Left Behind,” “Race to the Top” and other edicts mandate schools and teachers to expend considerable energy bringing up the performance of the lowest-performing students—those in the bottom quarter.  If this “subset” of students doesn’t make adequate learning gains,  teachers and schools face financial and other sanctions, regardless of how much the other 75 percent learn, grow or achieve.  I sincerely do want all of my students to do well,  but quite frankly,  I  frequently exert what seems like a Sisyphean effort to help some students succeed –indeed, often considerably more effort than they  themselves put forth!

After school, I phone a few parents.  Dominic’s* home phone rings off the hook. I try his mother’s cell and get voice mail. “Good afternoon, Ms. Blot*, this is Mrs. Nahirny, Dominic’s English teacher. Please call me at your earliest convenience at 447-1575. Dom hasn’t turned in the work I gave him to do while he was suspended. It’s  been two weeks now and he’s made up nothing.  His grade in my class is 44 percent.  The quarter ends soon; he doesn’t have much time to submit missing assignments.”

Next I dial Megan’s* mom. Voice mail again. “Good afternoon, Ms. Washington*, this is Mrs. Nahirny, Megan’s English teacher. Please call me at 447-1575.  I’m worried about Megan. She’s missed 11 straight days of school. Is everything OK? Is she sick?  Since she hasn’t been here to turn in anything for so long, her grade is now 52 percent. All of her teachers are very concerned. We really want to hear from you.”

Thankfully no conference awaits me the next morning, so I continue my calls before Brian arrives to make up his vocabulary quiz.  As I dial, I feel more like a telemarketer than a teacher, trying to sell parents on the value of an education, albeit mostly unsuccessfully.

Sebastian’s* mother answers. It’s barely 7:30;  I sense  I’ve awakened her.

“ I had no idea he was doing so poorly. He’s  got eight missing assignments? Why didn’t you call sooner?” she asks accusingly.

I  explain I sent home a progress report 10 days ago which Sebastian still hasn’t returned with her signature, but she dismisses that saying, “Don’t send anything home with him; I’ll never get it. It’s probably in the trash or the bottom of his book bag.”

“Do you know about our online grade book, Skyward?” I ask.

“Yeah, but it’s too complicated to check his grades online.”

“From what I can see in Skyward, he’s failing all his classes, not just mine.”

“No, he’s passing his online P.E. class.”

(How wonderful.)

“Can you come in for a conference with his teachers so we can set up a plan to get him on track?” I persist.


“I can’t get off work. But we just bought him a new truck because we saw how hard he was working, well, how hard we thought he was working. He won’t be using it for a few days. That’ll get him off his ass!”

(A new truck? For someone who isn’t responsible enough to deliver a progress report?)

The next morning, Tim, the texter from the conference a few days earlier, arrives 10 minutes late to my class.

“Where were you?” I ask.

“Getting coffee,” he said, elevating a Styrofoam  cup. “You told my parents I’m  always sleepy in class.”

“You are. Go get a tardy pass.” I return my attention to the 24 others whose learning he’d heedlessly interrupted.

Ten minutes elapse before he comes back. He’s missed the day’s vocabulary lesson and grammar practice. He rummages in his knapsack before settling down, as his classmates and I continue the discussion we started yesterday about Steinbeck and social criticism; Tim takes no notes. Soon he puts his head down.

I drop by his desk several minutes later when students begin their assignment.

“Tim, why aren’t you working?”

“I don’t have a pencil.”

“I’ve given you a pencil every single day this week. What happened to those?”

“I lost them, I guess.”

At the end of the period, I collect students’ work. Tim turns in a mostly blank paper; no doubt, he hadn’t read the assignment the night before, and  likely hadn’t attended the free tutoring suggested at the conference.

Why do I even bother?

I find my answer during lunch as I nibble at my egg salad sandwich at my desk in isolation, trying to catch up on e-mail.

Dear Mrs. Nahirny, This is to acknowledge my deep appreciation of you as Samuel’s committed and dedicated English teacher. He has blossomed and improved so much in the last eight months under your expert coaching, mentoring and encouragement. He speaks very highly of you at home and I truly believe his potential is being tapped under your tutelage. I, too, had a very special teacher who taught me English in high school. She was instrumental in helping me realize my dream to come to America. Thank you for being a teacher who makes a difference.”

I smile as tears come to my eyes.

A teacher who makes a difference.

If only Tim, Megan, Sebastian and Dominic’s  parents thought so, too.

Maybe then they’d call me back.

Jo Ann C. Nahirny, a 1985 graduate of Columbia University and a National Board Certified Teacher, teaches English at Matanzas High School in Palm Coast. Reach her by email here.

Homework. (Julia Lamphear)

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35 Responses for “Teachers’ Bane: Students Who Don’t
Give a Damn, and Parents Who Reward Them”

  1. palmcoaster says:

    @Jack Howell. I agree that politicians come up with this pseudo programs intended to perpetuate their names in history…so far, as failures. Also they stand along with the teachers and schools bashing teams, to benefit private corporations and special interest lobbying for the privatization for profit (charters ) of our school system. They want to privatize all for the profiting few and the undermining of the services we pay for with our taxes like: Education, Retirement System SS, Medicare, Medicare, STA, Armed Forces(Blackwater and others) and their Services (Halliburton) our Postal Services and the list goes on…
    Our Health Care Insurance/System has been private until now and look what we have…well over 40 million men, women and children go without it. Looks like they want to do the same with our education system.
    I appreciate to Mrs Nahirny, the courage in spite the risk, to put in writing the harsh reality.

       3 likes

  2. Reinhold Schlieper says:

    I don’t think that these patterns are any different for college-level work; such enrollment is merely more expensive. Perhaps one should make education at all levels less expensive and be willing to “fire” students into lower tiers of education.

       1 likes

  3. Outsider says:

    @elaygee: I’m a little confused. During the Catholic Church versus Obama’s birth control debacle, the left-wing media came up with all sorts of polls “proving” that the vast majority of Catholic women ignore the church’s ban on birth control. Now, you want us to believe that it’s religious folks’ strict ADHERANCE to religious dogma that’s causing people to not use birth control, even if it means they will have unwanted children. So, am I to deduce you simply take whichever argument supports your stance of the day?

       3 likes

  4. Anon says:

    I gotta say that I find this type of writing by a teacher to be appalling. Your job is tough. You have to deal with difficult people. You have stress. We get it. Do you know why we get it? Because all jobs have those same things! The biggest difference . . . we have to work more than 180 days for the same salary if not less. Often times dealing with teachers themselves that are rude and disrespectful themselves of other people’s time when you have appointments with them that they themselves set!

    This is the type of public representation we want for our schools and school system? This is the type of negative representation that Mataznas High should have?

       8 likes

    • H M Petishnok says:

      @anon. Negative representation of the schoool.? I think not. In the cases described it seems to me the school is going above and beyond while some students do nothing and teachers end up having to play the parental role.

         8 likes

    • Mike says:

      Are you seriously this short-sighted? Is it remotely possible? Since teachers have it far easier than you, perhaps you would like to become a teacher? But then, of course, you would need to become educated yourself.

      Nevermind.

         4 likes

  5. Pedro says:

    Home school your children. Teach them moral and values. Do this for a generation and our society will actually become intelligent, kind, honest, trustworthy once again .

       7 likes

    • PCer says:

      There are plenty of homeschooled kids who have parents that do not care. It is not about homeschool v. public school v. private school v. charter school. It is about parents teaching their children to do the right thing and to follow the rules. Most parents ned to teach by example. If they are doing the right thing, their kids will do the right thing.

         7 likes

      • localresident says:

        Please give me your statistics telling about homeschooling parents who don’t care about their kids.

        Nobody in their right mind would make the necessary sacrifices of finances and time to homeschool, only to be regularly insulted about their choice by strangers if they didn’t care about their kids.

           0 likes

  6. Outsider says:

    I appreciate the view into a teacher’s day. This illustrates the absurdity of the idea that every child has a right to a free education. Hogwash! If these types of kids and parents aren’t willing to do their part, then throw them the hell out of school, free up some space and time for the kids that do put in the effort and use the savings the give the performing teachers a good raise.

       11 likes

    • that guy says:

      this is America we do have the right free education. average salary for florida teacher 43k average salary of an american soldier in afgahnistan 24k who do you think deserves the raise?

         0 likes

  7. Gram says:

    Everyone has fair and equal access to education, but it’s what you do with that education from home that makes your child a scholar. Parent attitudes, support of staff and policies, and critical thinking and engagement at home are make-or-break things in a student’s life, and teachers have no control over them. It’s frustrating. Please keep these dispatches coming.

       4 likes

  8. Anon says:

    @HM, I think it’s a teacher whining about their employer and their customer that irks them and is not the norm.

    @Mike, I have a Bachelor’s Degree.

    Here’s the thing, my daughter went through the schools here and actually graduated from Matanzas. These are good schools. I personally worked directly with teachers for several years . . . they often make it harder on themselves. These parents are ridiculous so “go above and beyond” and tell them that. Don’t go on a news website to self-promote by whining about your job. The question for me is why is this an issue for this teacher? Tell the kid and his parents like it is . . . “Your son is failing. He doesn’t obviously care, and since you won’t even correct his behavior regarding paying attention it’s assumed you don’t care much either. So how many more years do you want us meeting?”

    Do me a favor, write articles like this about your job and the customers you encounter publicly naming your employer and tell me how that goes over for you. Is she helping? No. She’s whining about her job. So get a different job. Tell me then how much more time you have, how the pay is better, the people issues are less, etc. Ain’t gonna happen and complaining never helps.

       4 likes

  9. Brett C. says:

    In public school, it’s not too often that you’re taught by a graduate of Columbia University.

    I am proud to say that I was enrolled in Mrs. Nahirny’s English II Honors course and AP English/Composition course when I was a student at Matanzas High School (Class of 2010). Spent a year at Stetson University, transferred, now currently a junior at Arizona State University, I have yet to run across a professor that could stand against her caliber of English instruction. Because of her, I can communicate with substance and fluidity in my writing.

    I believe one is mistaken if their perception of this article is nothing more than whining. She’s not complaining about her “job;” in fact, she’s not complaining at all. She’s merely criticizing the frightening social norm of how teachers jump through hoops like monkeys to make sure every one of their students succeeds (as pressured by both the school district and the state of Florida) and how parents, and sometimes the school system, are blind to this reality. She’s also criticizing the lack of fairness that teachers are served from their superiors based on students who don’t “give a damn.”

    Apparently in this generation, It’s obvious that poor student performance is unequivocally the fault of poor teacher performance. I find it very humorous that “student accountability” is ironically never placed on the student (sadly, I still see this kind of activity in college). The term, “Sisyphean,” is spot on!

    She takes dedication to a whole new level with ALL of her students; even with students who don’t deserve her dedication. Being one of her former students and TA’s, I would know.

       11 likes

  10. Alex N says:

    My favorite part.

    “No, he’s passing his online P.E. class.”

    (How wonderful.)

    I can picture Mrs. Nahirny saying that perfectly!!

       4 likes

  11. veteran says:

    you get paid to do your job so do it mrs nahriny. i wasnt complaining this much about my job when i was in afghanistan fighting just so you can complain about your students online. want to switch jobs mrs nahriny? i would gladly teach kids and deal with the stress. than deal with getting shot at on a regular basis. im not saying your job is easy im just saying dont complain when you have a very good job when compared to most.

       2 likes

    • H M Petishnok says:

      To veteran I know for a fact that Mrs Nahirny is married to a veteran herself so between the two of them they are more than doing their share. My whole family consists of teachers who are not knocking your job so why are you knocking theirs? What I read here is commentary on a sad situation that parents create, not complaining but more like lamentation that so called education has come to this… Same I suppose could be said in some cases in the military based on what I see on the news no shortage of people speaking out about military situations either

         3 likes

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