OT: Classroom protections

Dear Mrs. C******,

As I was trying vainly to start the next phase of the packing process this afternoon, the phone rang. The second after I answered, when you asked if you were speaking with Dr. Michaela* Servetus, I could hear the pain in your voice. And when you told me who you were, I knew exactly why you were calling, and I began to crumple inside. I gave your daughter, S, an F in my introductory course this spring, a course among the certification requirements for all of the social studies teachers in the state, and one that our campus’ demanding education degree requires be taken in residence. Budget cuts and research leaves mean it won’t be offered here next year at all. S’s failure, apart from being a sad fact in itself, is thus also a serious setback. I never fail a student who completes all the coursework. Your daughter didn’t manage this feat, but I couldn’t tell you that, because federal law prevents me from discussing her grades with you unless I have a written release. I told you that, and you said you knew.

You’re not the first parent of a student with a learning disability to call. Usually these calls frustrate me — parents used to interacting with schoolteachers sometimes treat me as if I am obligated to respond to their demands. “I’m calling to tell you what my son is going to need from you,” those conversations start. That’s not how it works here. The “child,” now legally an adult, submits paperwork to a campus office that generates a letter that tells me how I am required to accommodate his/her needs. I sigh inwardly when I read these letters. Even students without disabilities find my classes hard, and I can’t imagine what torture it must be to listen to five hundred pages of The Wealth of Nations as an audiobook, or how doing so could really help anyone write an essay about it (for instance). I wonder how someone who can’t concentrate for 75 minutes to take an exam will be able to do it for the 150 or 225 minutes routinely mandated by some of these letters. But I follow the letters to the letter. First, because I believe that students are entitled to receive the help they need to succeed, and the letter protects their rights. Second, because the letters protect the student from any prejudice I might have — I never learn what the student suffers from, only what help he must receive. Third, because they protect the integrity of the classroom. I want the grading to be fair to all students — those with learning disabilities and those without, something that should go without saying. But there’s another reason. Often, the accommodation doesn’t really address the disability in a way that helps the student all that much, and I occasionally end up having to justify myself in response to grade challenges. Accommodation most typically allows the student to pass — usually not to get an A — but in our educational world, all students are supposed capable of getting an A. Following the letter protects me legally. Uch. All these people between me and the student already in this situation, and the parent wants to insert herself? One might be inclined to think that we need less protection, not more.

But I couldn’t get annoyed with you, Mrs. C*****, because your voice shook so dramatically. You said you were calling because it took your daughter two days to admit to you that she had failed. You said she had begged you not to call, but that you were convinced that you needed to talk to me, to tell me what kind of student she really is, one who works hard and sometimes struggles, but not one who gets Fs. Within three sentences you were sobbing and I was struggling to hang onto my own composure. You told me that you have five children, and that two are severely autistic, and that S has had a hard adolescence, that she’s struggled hard to get anywhere at all. You mentioned her ADD, and the fact that a formal recognition of this problem that would get her classroom accommodations costs more than you could afford. That doesn’t surprise me, and I suspect that you also can’t afford the actual drugs she needs, because she told me in February, after her first bizarre failure to submit required work, that she was trying to get back onto a drug after stopping it for awhile because it was so expensive. The drug she mentioned isn’t usually prescribed for ADD, and I wondered if ADD is just a shorthand that you share with teachers to avoid discussion of a much more serious problem. You said you just wanted me to understand.

You said you weren’t asking me to change the grade. Of course you were, Mrs. C*****, but I couldn’t hold it against you, because what you really wanted changed was so much more profound than that. I don’t think this conversation was really about the grade. You were unloading your grief about a situation that’s persisted for years, a daily life that’s probably full of worry, where joys, I can imagine, are hard-won and all too fleeting. I think you wanted to tell me that you want a world in which your beautiful daughter could share all the skills and talents that you can see because you know her, and I didn’t, because I don’t. And that this grade is just a piece of evidence that says the world is not like that. It says that all the legal protections in place can’t give your child certain capacities demanded by the modern world — among them an ability to concentrate at what people only thirty years ago would have considered an unreasonable intensity — and all our efforts to even out the playing field can’t make things good for students who come from disadvantaged social backgrounds, whose parents can’t pay for tutoring, for private schools, for individual instruction, for educational evaluations that generate classroom accommodations. It says that the general inequities of life — the simple fact that some people are faster thinkers, easier interlocutors, more adept writers, better cooperators than others — can’t be overridden or made meaningless with a law. And I was the one who rubbed your nose in it this week. I was the one who told you that you can’t protect your daughter from all of this stuff.

What I would have said, if S were not protected by FERPA from my intensive scrutiny, and from her mother’s fears: S seems to be a sweet young woman, because she’s got a shy smile and she’s almost totally silent; she comes across as a little bit fey. Even when called on in lecture, she never answered. She never turned a single assignment in on time, nor according to the mandated format. She took the maximum allowed absences in the class, which killed her quiz average, and despite failing both the first two essays, she did not take advantage of the supplemental instruction sessions that the university pays for for those who struggle in the class, which was specifically geared toward helping students deal with the writing requirements of the course. When she came to office hours to ask for help, it was possible to have a coherent discussion with her only with great difficulty. I was never sure she understood or processed what I said, and long pauses were more frequent in our conversations than outbursts of ideas or insight. Sometimes it took her ten seconds to respond to a question, as if she simply couldn’t process what I was saying at a more typical speed. I tried to take her by drafts through the second essay, and she made some progress, but the level of educational deficit S has to combat in reading, writing and critical analysis is not something that can be surmounted in a single paper, let alone a single or perhaps even several semesters. She submitted the final paper, with the wrong accompanying components, late, in a format that neither I, nor my TA, nor our IT guy, could open. Since we couldn’t read her work, we couldn’t pass it.

As I experience her now, S is not ready for this university. My introductory course is challenging, but it’s not all that different from the challenges she is going to face as she progresses. This is not to say she doesn’t belong at any university, but if she is to succeed here, she will need not only the right medication, but also intensive tutoring to make up her educational deficits. Various things I can’t discuss further made me suspect that S was admitted via the ten percent rule, and not because her qualifications were truly compatible with what we expect here. We see this a lot — students from poor districts who aspire to be engineers who have to take basic math classes that simply weren’t offered in their schools competing with others who had extensive, advanced math instruction in other, wealthier school districts. How to even it out? But in this case, it’s another protection fehlgeschlagen; the very law that’s supposed to guarantee your daughter’s access to the state’s premier institution is setting her up for failure, because she just can’t compete here. She was possibly a quiet star in an impoverished school district, the kind of school that often rewards behavior as much as intellect — and that guaranteed her a place here — but it can’t guarantee that she will pass.

Federal law protected me from having to say all that and Mrs. C***** from having to listen to it.

What I actually said: Mrs. C*****, this is one grade in one class in one semester of your daughter’s career. It’s not a judgment of her intellect, her perseverance, her character, her uniqueness, her value as a human being. It is solely a numerical evaluation of her performance in a particular setting in comparison with seventy-nine other students enrolled in the course who were confronted with the same challenges. We don’t grade for effort at the university; we grade for outcome. How well can you absolve the task put to you? That’s all I can do — I can’t give the student who needs six hours to do the reading a better grade than the student who takes three just because the course is much harder for him. Would you want someone to be hired as a teacher because she tried hard? Or because she succeeded? Those two things are related but not entirely the same. Of course, Mrs. C*****, I can imagine that this is upsetting to both of you, but she shouldn’t give up. Perhaps covering the material against with another professor will do the trick. A lot of this was a lie, in the sense that the grade also reflects the long term pileup of precisely those inequities Mrs. C****** wants to protect her daughter from: socioeconomic status, varying instruction, organic differences, educational experiences. The numerical evaluation of people who can’t compete is not fair. It’s just punishing. But it seemed to help Mrs. C*****, and she started calling me Professor Michaela before she ended the call. I hope she felt better for at least ten minutes.

What I wanted to say, had we not both been protected: Mrs. C*****, protect your daughter. Take S out of this university and put her in a cheaper community college, where she will get the more elementary instruction that she needs right now and at which she could more conceivably succeed. Help her build some self esteem rather than exposing her to constant embarrassment and/or confusion here. After a year or two, see if a return to this campus is really a possibility. In the meantime, use the tuition savings to get her an official diagnosis to generate a classroom accommodation. Consider helping her to find a career path that emphasizes practical and task-oriented employment rather than reading and writing. Protect her by loving her for who she is, not just in the sense that you see all her wonderful potential qualities, as you do already, but also in the sense that you look honestly at her real capacities and help her to take advantage of them.

And the last thing I didn’t say: Mrs. C*****, I’m so sorry that I couldn’t tell you even more. I wish I could have said that I waited with bated breath every time an assignment was due in hopes that your daughter would submit it, submit it correctly, and had she managed both of those, that something in the assignment would merit a grade of at least D+. I wish I could have said how discouraging I found her office hour visits to me, insofar as it was obvious that she would work hard to do as I suggested but there was little chance that she could put all the pieces together in time for an essay, even with an extension. I wish I could say that my inability to intervene in any way that would help students like your daughter is one of the things that has made me want to stop being a professor. Every time I fill in the “F” bubble on the grade sheet in a situation like this, I get tears in my eyes. Neither of us can protect your defenseless daughter. Let’s be honest: we can’t even protect ourselves.


“Prof. Michaela”

*Actually, Servetus doesn’t have a first name, but of course I do. “Michael” was the Christian name of the historical Servetus.

~ by Servetus on May 27, 2011.

48 Responses to “OT: Classroom protections”

  1. Is there any question I felt the pain of this? I read it with tears in my eyes. But it’s not that the girl may have to regroup to get an education, if she does indeed try again. It is watching the destruction wrought by a failed god.


  2. I agree with you Servetus, I have worked in/with the special education field for many years at every grade level including college. I have 4 children,now grown, With ADHD, my son and husband are also legeally blind. So I have experianced both sides of the coin. Not to mention my own ADHD. Some parents just don’t understand that even after accomdations are made it is up to the student to put out the effort, you reap what you sow. That is even more true once they are adults. It is frustrating but all one can do is their best and I’m sure you did that. ( sometimes I just wanted to rip me hair out dealing with kids who were old enough to know better)


    • Thanks for the comment, Jo Ann. I’m impressed with the determination of many of these students, but they need four times as much, and most just don’t have it. The accommodations can help a lot if the student has a lot of discipline — but that’s something that even many of our more neurotypical students lack.


  3. *sigh* I wish you could have said what you wanted. IMO it is an honest, sincere and objective advice that could lead her daughter and her to a happier, easier, more satisfying path.I hope things go well for them, whatever they do.

    Hope everything goes well for you too Servetus!

    OML 🙂


  4. That was heartbreaking. I’m sorry you were hamstrung to tell Mrs. C the truth that she probably hasn’t heard and never will hear from those who can make an objective and honest evaluation. It seems the very rules enacted to protect the neediest student are the ones that do the most harm.


    • Yeah, I don’t know what to do about this sort of thing. On the one hand, the ten percent rule is a good idea. I honestly believe that probably 80% of the time it helps better (as opposed to socially more well-placed) students to get here. But in cases like this it’s just heartbreaking.

      There’s one particular school district in our state that sends a lot of students here because the parents just burst their buttons with pride when their children get in. It’s a big deal, and they impoverish their whole families to pay for it, but most of those students leave after 2-3 semesters. They can’t keep up. And I wonder what it’s like to have to go home in that situation?


  5. The truth is, we aren’t created–or at least we don’t grow up to be–equal. Some of us are born into better circumstances than others; some have greater obstacles to oevercome in life than others. This is a heartbreaking situation and I know as a former teacher how your heart sinks when a student earns a failing grade.

    It is a shame you couldn’t say what you wanted to say. It was indeed good, sound advice from a caring and experienced educator.

    And may I say community colleges are a great place for lots of students to start their education–located close to home, more affordable and more manageable for students who do have issues with which they struggle.


    • Unfortunately, one can’t say to students that it creates physical pain to give failing grades. They wouldn’t believe you, and it sounds condescending (“this F hurts me more than it hurts you”). But it’s really true.

      I taught two semesters in a community college right after finishing my Ph.D., and I am a big fan of them. They don’t necessarily provide the same rigor, but they can be a great stepping stone and professors who aren’t being paid based on their research have more time to help.


      • Something else that always caused me distress was seeing a really bright and capable student not living up to his or her potential, when there were other kids who had to work so hard to achieve a fractino of what the “slacker” could have done with only a little effort. I always hoped maturity and life experience would eventually allow them to see all the possibilities within them . . .

        I know several of the instructors at our community college, which is a branch campus that is really flourishing. They are experienced, caring educators–several have retired from teaching in the public school system– who also retain enthusiasm and a passion for the subject(s) they teach.

        As you say, a place like this can be a wonderful stepping stone. I worked with a PE teacher and coach at ASB who started her college career at Auburn. Small town girl suddenly exposed to the excitement and freedoms of the university. She had fun; she also ended up with a GPA of less than one that first semester.

        She went home, got her two years at a community college, grew up a bit, and returned to Auburn a sober (in more ways than one) student to complete her bachelors. With a much higher GPA, I might add.

        In these financially strapped times, being able to save on room and board and tuition costs can also be a big help. It can mean the difference between a person being able to start their higher education or having to postpone it. And our local college offesr many scholarships to students, from academic and athletic to performing arts.


  6. What a sad story. You aren’t really responsible for every side of this situation, just the grading part, and you seem to understand that. The best advice I got when I was teaching is that the student has a right to fail. I was always trying to find a way to be a nice lady and accommodate students so they could pass. I finally realized that many of them did not want to continue and were relieved to fail. Often there was a parent pushing them to do a degree they didn’t actually want to do and failing was their escape from the parent’s plans. The situation you describe is much more complicated, but you’ve done more than what was required of you, responsibly and with compassion. Dealing with the mom sounds so hard!!


    • It is really difficult for an eighteen or nineteen year old girl, I think, to tell her mother that she doesn’t want to be in college, and in some situations you’re exactly right that they don’t want to continue. This is another protection that FERPA affords those students that I think is a kind one — if they want not to discuss the situation with their parents, there are protections in place to prevent their parents from learning more. I’m sure that really frustrates parents who are paying huge tuition bills, though.


  7. The heartache of a mother and the agony of a teacher. Lucky for those who are born without any form of disability. We can only live and let live within our capabilities, anything else is a bonus.

    Quite intrigue with the name “Servetus”, never thought it’s of Spanish origin…another lesson in history. Thanks


    • There’s also a painful aspect of this in terms of being the “smart woman” who is telling someone that her daughter’s not that smart, the childless woman who’s delivering to someone with five children a statement that she might feel is a judgment on her parenting. Which it isn’t. I have the utmost respect for most parents and the sacrifices they make to get their kids this far. There’s a sense in which if you have a Ph.D. people think you’re an intellectual snob. I’d like to think I’m not — but in a situation like this I can’t help but look that way.

      Servetus=yeah, the heretic everyone wanted to burn, my second favorite figure of the sixteenth century.


  8. That was heartbreaking, Servetus. I am the parent of a young man, A, who has severe and profound difficulties, inclding Autism. These issues have not arisen for me in regard to A, my son, but I have a nephew who has ADHD and is extremely dyslexic, which has meant a Statement of SEN as we call it in the UK. I’ve worked informally with a young man of high intellectual ability who has Asperger’s Syndrome. So I guess you could say I have seen most sides of this particular coin in one way or another. In addition, the things I have learned about ‘the system’ because of A have led me to spend a great deal of time supporting parents of children who have special educational needs in finding their way round the maze that is “the system” we have here in the UK.

    I read your eloquent annd deeply insightful post with eyes full of tears and I found myself wishing fervently that you had not been prevented from saying what you would have wished to say to the parent of this vulnerable young woman. The truth spoken with compassion by one who cared could perhaps have been of help.

    Sometimes a parent cannot see what is before them. Mrs C may never have heard these things spoken compassionately. There is a tendency, I think, to believe that “with help” all things are possible. It cannot be so. And you were no saying there is no hope for S,instead you would have suggested an aternative path. I thought that your words could have been constructive. And in life, learning disabled or no, we often have to modify our goals.

    What you would have wished to say amounted to wise advice from an experienced education professional, one in a positiion to make an appropriate objective evaluation, and for that reason, I so wish you had been able to have that conversation with Mrs C. Yet I know, too, that it is, for some parents, almost too much for them to understand that even after considerable accomodations for their young person’s difficult ies, the student must, in the end, make the efforts and some simply cannot manage what is required. That can be so painful that a parent does not wish to “go there.”

    It must have seen so very hard for you to talk to Mrs C and try to deal with her pain, knowing you were severely limted in what you were able to divulge. You have done all you possibly could. And that, I know from what you have written, was painful for you too. I think you for having written it.


    • Thanks for the kind comment, ladyj. You’re righ that it really is a maze, to navigate, and I’m sad to hear it’s that way in other countries, too. Postsecondary ed is complicated without adding all this stuff to it, and it’s no wonder that parents are frustrated.

      I think your point about illusions is a good one. I hang on to plenty of my own, and I don’t like them shattered any more than Mrs. C***** probably does. We can’t really live without hope, can we?


  9. Servetus, you had me crying halfway through your letter. It was so heartbreaking to me. I trained for a teacher and started it, but could not do it because of the system even predicting to explain something to pupils. You present a topic and in tests request some abstract development of the initially presented topic. Explanation and exercise was not the intended path to make pupils understand. When I saw children of immigrants, willing to learn, but struggling with the basics and getting no help and me absolutely unable to do something for them, but seeing the teachers getting each other’s hides but doing nothing for the children, I just could not go on and support a system I did not believe in.
    How very tender of you to advise the mother so gently inside the possible boundaries.


    • it’s so frustrating that the system so often fails precisely the people it’s put in place to help. I know that the question of teaching immigrants’ children in Germany is really heartbreaking. When the language of instruction is not the one that’s spoken at home, everything gets much more complex. (I won’t say harder, because I think we should support bilingualism, but it is much more complicated.) We have students here in a similar situation — they can’t really write English OR Spanish very effectively.


  10. Amen. All parents should read this letter. BTW I love when you blog about your life.


  11. Why does our society push everyone into higher ed? People are talented in so many and so different ways. Of what use is The Wealth of Nations to the average 19 year old? As an old timer, I tend to believe youngsters would be better off if more paths (other than a diluted college degree) to success were opened to them. When I was in junior high many/most of the boys quit school to farm or work in the steel mills. Girls usually took secretarial classes. We nearly all married young, had children and stayed married through thick and thin. The women ran the homes and the men brought home the bacon. We all ate together and woe betide those tardy to the table. It certainly wasn’t perfect by any means, but that system seems better (to me at least) than what passes for family life/child rearing/education today.


    • A lot of people are better off going to a trade/technical college after high school. Often with the right training, they can get a very well-paying job–sometimes better than they would earn with a college degree. It’s a less expensive, more practical option for those who are really not cut out for a traditional four-year college.

      You are right, Marylou–we are all different in our talents, gifts and areas of knowledge and expertise. I loved college; had fun and learned a lot and I wouldn’t trade a minute of it–but I remember going to school with certain classmates who appeared to be on the six-year plan, and thinking, “WHY are they wasting their/their parents’/the government’s money?”


      • I think that most students don’t really understand the money that’s being spent. For instance, most students in my classes are surprised to learn that their tuition doesn’t cover the entire cost of educating them (it’s actually much less — like less than a third) and that they study mostly at the pleasure of the majority of taxpayers whose children will never be able to attend this institution.


    • I didn’t use to teach Wealth of Nations to beginning students, until I started hearing from students who’d never read it or Theory of Moral Sentiments what Adam Smith had to say about this and that. Now I think it’s important for them to read it so as to learn what’s NOT in it. 🙂

      That said, the escalation of requirements (you practically need a bachelor’s degree to apply for a job as an administrative assistant today) seems to be being driven by technological and/or productivity gains. Used to be you could start a job as a receptionist and work up to head secretary. Now most of the things a receptionist used to do are done by various kinds of technology. No time to learn on the job, you have to have decisionmaking skills in place before you start or you’re sunk.


  12. I taught at a state school for the blind and visually impaired for three years right out of college. My older sister is legally blind; she was born with toxoplasmosis, a diseased unknowlingly carried by our mother and passed on to my sis in the womb.

    Toxo can cause extensive damage to the central nervous system, leaving the child severely disabled. My sister counts her blessings that only her vision was affected. Her mind is a brilliant one (she is a member of Mensa). But when the toxo flared up every few years it left more scar tissue on her eyes and her vision got much worse during those periods.

    She was attending a small women’s college at the time of one of the flare-ups and it was miserable for her. She finally asked to leave school for a while. Her opthamalogist didn’t want her to withdraw because he assumed she would never go back. He didn’t know my sister as well as he thought.

    She took some time off, recovered from the bout, transferred to the school she always wanted to go to, and went year-round to catch up on her work, completing her bachelors and masters degrees on time. She worked as a rehab counselor for the deaf and blind, winning multiple awards for her efforts, until illness forced early retirement.

    My parents had always been protective and encouraging to my sister at the same time. But they didn’t encourage her to pursue career opportunities that wouldn’t work for somebody with her visual impairment.

    Yet I remember students at ASB who honestly thought they were going to grow up and drive an 18-wheeler. Some had been so sheltered, they were sheltered from the reality of their situation.

    I think we should be encouraging to our children and our students, but also kindly steer them in directions that are achievable–challenging without being overwhelmingly difficult and frustrating or downright impossible.


    • thanks for this, Angie. In reading this I was thinking that the crucial ingredient is hope. Your sister knew that she could reasonably hope to achieve her goals. I think that a lot of times people think if they are honest with someone about their limitations they are destroying their hope.


      • The truth can hurt, and it’s got to be hard for parents to tell their children, “Look, this just isn’t going to work for you.” After all, aren’t we supposed to tell them to believe in themselves and they can achieve whatever they set out to do? Finding a balance between encouraging and supporting their dreams and stressing prudence and care in pursuing those dreams just can’t be easy.

        I give my parents lots of props for the way they handled things. And my sister is someone for whom I have the greatest admiration (and would even if she weren’t my sister).

        I’ve never known her to feel sorry for herself and wallow in self-pity. It has been very frustrating at times for my sister; an independent spirit not being able to drive a car, a true musical talent who couldn’t pursue her love of playing the piano when she could no longer read the music, not being able to find part-time work after her retirement due to the limits her vision creates for her. But she still manages a rich and full life. And is one of the most truly good people I have ever known.


  13. I found the whole thing profoundly moving. I had no idea that there were so many restrictions – and legal ones at that – that rendered you unable to have the conversation with “Mrs C” that you would wished to have had. I believe she would have been the better for hearing it because she would have seen that you cared.

    After reading it all I am even more convinced you are a person of great integrity, with a heart for the plight of the disadvantaged, but above all a teacher par excellence. Wherever life next takes you I hope and pray that what you will find there would be fulfillment and joy.


    • It’s my understanding that a student can give written permission for parents to receive information. Obviously, this girl did not want that and maybe it will eventually be a good thing that her mother could not intervene. I don’t know that but hope it’s the case.


      • That’s a good point, @RAFrenzy. We know that the mother very much wanted her daughter to pass, but it isn’t clear from the student’s behavior that she herself wanted to pass. She cried telling her mother she’s failed, but that could possibly be because she knew her mother would be disappointed.


        • I think that’s right — it’s hard to disappoint your parents at that age for many “good girls” — and this could be interpreted as a sort of passive resistance.


      • Yes, exactly, Frenz. There’s a release form that can be filled out and then I’d speak to her. I’d rather speak in person but in this case I certainly would have talked to her on the phone.

        I always make a point of telling the students on the first day about FERPA and why they should be aware of it. Mostly because I want to emphasize that I see a class as developing an educational relationship between them and me, and that they have to be free to make choices about that relationship and about their education. They need to know they have the right not to have their parents intervene if they don’t want them to. Most universities I’ve taught at (not sure if this one does) send a letter to entering students and their parents that explains this policy, and encloses a form to have the student decide whether she even wants copies of grades sent to parents. I’m guessing the fact that Mrs. C***** didn’t receive her own copy of the grades means that S didn’t ever submit this form, although whether that was intentional or just distracted behavior would be hard to say.

        That said, if I were S, I’d be hesitant to waive confidentiality because of all of the absences she had, and because of the issues with submitting her work. If my mother had ever heard from a professor of mine that I wasn’t attending class and didn’t submit the assignments on time, in the correct format, or with the necessary elements, she’d have really taken me to task, along the lines of “not everybody is Einstein but everyone can turn her work in on time” and so on. (Of course, my mother never called a professor to discuss my grades, either. Even if she would have wanted to, she’d have been way too much in awe to do something like that.) If she is trying to get free from her mother, admitting that she didn’t attend class or submit work on time or in correct format would probably generate exactly the opposite of what she wants.


    • On the whole those restrictions are probably a good idea. Among other things they prevent me (I know nothing about the causes, symptoms, treatment, etc.) of learning disabilities) from making snap judgments. But often they are in the way.

      What’s weird is that fifteen years ago, when I started teaching, professors almost never heard from parents unless there was something really, really amiss. This all started a little less than a decade ago. Something about a generation of kids who’d been medicated to get them through school finally entering the university, I think.

      Thanks for your kind words.


  14. I dipped in here after ages and read your moving post. I have only one thing to say. Your federal law is an ass. Over here ( I have been a lecturer) inclusion is implemented so that the student can achieve a reasonable target. How can the teacher not be told of the person’s condition and then be expected to help them, and then the institute says “we encourage inclusion”? No body can go on to a higher level course without first showing that they have completed reasonable attainment at the previous level, whether this is through practical or academic experience. To set a student up like this who obviously needs to achieve basic standards first, is criminal. I am not saying the system here is perfect, far from it, but if a student is encouraged to do a course , that student should have had all the support in place to make sure she could do it ( learning support worker in the class, equipement, and the the right medication etc). Otherwise, she should have been advised to do what you suggested.


    • Thanks for the comment, Spooks Addict. I think the problems here are overdetermined. First, the quality of secondary in the US varies wildly, and there are no effective standardized measures of outcomes. We have students here with high school diplomas, but what that means varies drastically from school district to school district. Some districts are spending twice as much per student as others, and that naturally affects the kind of education they are able to offer. There’s also nothing here like A levels or O levels, and the two usual college entrance exams (the SAT and ACT) claim to measure aptitude rather than knowledge. They are essentially basic tests in reading, writing, and math more than anything else. Many educational experts consider them to be culturally biased. We do administer placement exams here in fields like math, composition, and foreign language, but not in history. Students are assumed capable of taking the introductory courses if they have a high school diploma. These are problems that affect every student in our state, not just those with learning disabilities.

      I don’t want to create the impression that I’m an opponent of either the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or FERPA (the three laws I referred to in this post), in the sense that I think they actually do help a lot of people. The question about whether I can or should know about what a student’s problems are is a sticky one. The confidentiality is intended to protect the student (e.g., I am sure that I’ve had students in my class who are schizophrenics. Does the student really want me to know that? His classmates? What if I’ve got a prejudice against schizophrenics? What if I mention to other people that the student is schizophrenic? Etc., etc.). They also attempt to create a standard across the academic record so that the student knows what to expect and doesn’t have to negotiate constantly (he doesn’t have to convince me or anyone else that he needs time and half on exams, someone else has decided that, and he just has to do the work within his acccommodations). If we didn’t have this system, some professors would be very (too?) lenient and others would be jerks.

      One real problem from my perspective is that the battery of testing required to achieve an accommodation is lengthy and expensive, and if a wealthy parent really wants to get that for his child, he’ll manage it somehow, whereas the kids of the middle and lower classes are left high and dry.


  15. I read your blog now and then (and enjoy it!), but this was the first time I felt compelled to respond. Your compassion for your students is evident in every word you wrote. I am in college and knowing that the ‘hard-grading’ professor with hundreds of students actually does care is encouraging.

    However, I’m glad you had the strength to fail your student. Some might have been inclined to let her breeze through because of her disability, but that would not have been a kindness on your part. As a student who has a disability, I think you did the right thing. While it seems like she did try, she did not take full advantage of the help you offered.

    Failure can be good. Yes, it is painful, but it can refine. Perhaps, as you mentioned, she has learned she needs to major in something that plays to her strengths or attend a school where she can have more personalized instruction. It might also show her that she must apply herself more than she has in the past.

    When I was in high school, I sailed through my classes, many times without studying, and received excellent grades. When I first got to college, I thought I could continue in that manner. In the first semester, I was shocked to receive a low grade in a subject that I excelled in in high school. It made me realize that I had to work harder and put forth more effort. This could be a wakeup call to her that she must make it first priority to get the help she needs so she can then focus.

    It is a sad reality that we live in a sink or swim society. I hope your student, with the help of her obviously caring mother, can make the best decisions for her future. If an education career is something she truly wants, I am sure she will continue to fight the tide. She could definitely help young people, especially those with disabilities, in such an occupation. However, it might become necessary to pursue another course where she can realistically succeed.

    In a way, this problem is much like N&S. Two groups of people (masters and workers /professors and students) who have a common goal (mutually lucrative working of a factory/ proficient education of students), but remain hamstrung by the inequalities of the society in which they exist. Unfortunately, solving this problem will not be as easy as building a dining hall. I know that it may only a small comfort to you to know that you did your part, but, with this complex problem, it may be your only one. (Of course, I just equated you with RA and that might be a little comforting as well)


    • Your disability obviously does not lie in the realm of effective writing. Comforting? flattering, too, and not a little intuitive. There’s a reason that N&S hit me so hard when I saw it the second time. I feel strong identifications with Mr. Thornton. Thanks for the comment, Lights, and for the student perspective. It’s courageous for you to state that you want to get the grade you earned, and I hope you can keep that attitude. It’s hard to accept criticism as the reward for hard work — which is the sad but fundamental reality of college instruction. You think you’re doing well, or at least your best, and the instructor tells you just exactly everything you did wrong. No one likes that. What underlies your comment is something that I believe firmly but which is so hard to get across: if we can’t figure out what you don’t know or where you are struggling, then we don’t know where to apply the next piece of education. If I pass people on, I’m preventing them from recognizing what it is that they will need to succeed in a society that is, as you say, increasingly focused on results and self-help as opposed to effort and solidarity.

      And you’re right that people who struggled to learn something are often the best teachers. They work harder to think about how they learned something difficult and how the material can be conveyed, as opposed to just delivering something they htink is obvious.

      But it does still hurt to get a poor grade, and to give one. I won’t say that I can speak for all professors out there, and there are certainly people who don’t care that much about the outcomes of their teaching and don’t wince when they give bad grades. People become professors for different reasons, and it’s not unfair to say that in many fields teaching is not the first thing on the faculty member’s mind. But many, perhaps even most, of us do care and would certainly work to try to help students succeed when the student took the initiative to ask for help. That’s one central thing I always refer to on recommendation letters — is this a student who approached me for clarifications, further instruction, more stringent comments, supplemental conversation? That’s exactly the kind of student I like, whether or not the student is doing all that well in the class in terms of grades.

      I found out last week just exactly how much harder I grade than the average professor in my department. It was a bit sobering to read. Had I stayed here I might have needed to make my assignments a bit easier so I could raise my grading level to that of my colleagues. I’ve had good evaluations, but I don’t want to be unfair to students.


      • A student who is truly interested in your class and who is motivated to gain from it, regardless of whether or not they are the brightest students, can really be a joy to teach.

        And social promotion is just wrong. It really isn’t doing that student any favors in the long run. We have way too many people in this country who leave high school unable to read or write on anything close to the level where they should be. what are they equipped for? Are we setting them up for failure in our bid not to hurt their feelings?


  16. What a wonderfully insightful comment, Lights. I long to see what Servetus’ reply will be to it, especially as you beautifully equated her with RA!! Delightful! May I say I hope you favour us with more of your comments in the future. I look forward to them.


  17. “Something else that always caused me distress was seeing a really bright and capable student not living up to his or her potential, when there were other kids who had to work so hard to achieve a fractino of what the “slacker” could have done with only a little effort”

    Now this is one of my pet peeves! People who do not use thier potential are the people I have now patience/toleration for. Due to the conditions in which I grew up (very long painful story) I had to bust my you know what just to get the basics. I Graduated High School by the skin of my teeth, not because the work was hard but because homelife did not allow me the advantage of actually being present in a classroom. Then I spent nearly 30 years pushing my self to get a my degree in between raising a family and working full time,divorce, family who could handle thier own problem and expected me to fit them, ect. When I see someone just taking the chance at a good education and future I just cringe and want to shake them until the sense comes back into their heads.
    One of those people is my youngest child some days I want to strangle her, her life could be so much better if she used the brain the gods gave her and because now her children are suffering academically from thier mother’s lack of concern. I know she was raised better than that. they could be so much farther(granted they’re are only 7-6-5-3) but they have the potential to be gifted -one actually is- I spend what ever time I can teaching them but if it is not backed up at home- one can only do so much. (thanks for the venting) hope your day goes well today- (I hate packing- I feel for ya)


    • it’s frustrating to see people wasting a gift, isn’t it? It’s great that you do what you can for your grandchildren, though, and hopefully one of your sparks will catch flame, Jo Ann!


  18. Oops sorry about the typos, Hon.- need more coffee today!!!


    • that’s a feeling I know. I’m trying to get myself off of espresso in preparation to move to a place where a standard coffee is an easier thing to find than an espresso drink.


  19. Running through my mind are many thoughts. Many questions. Many observations. But most of all, I’d just like to say I’m proud to know you Prof. Servetus!


  20. […] and discussion turn to the way that FERPA is applied on this campus, a topic with which I have a long, tortured history. Intriguingly, we were told that strict adherence to the letter of the law requires that we not […]


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