Monday, July 21, 2008

Here's a Tangent

In the field of teaching there is a tedious and occasionally baneful activity we are expected to accomplish: record-keeping. The outsider may think, "Oh yeah, grades and attendance, that sort of thing." If only that were the limit. I call it tedious because of the time consuming nature of the activity. I call it baneful because of the possible consequence of the content required.

A current educational buzz word is documentation. In our school system, teachers are told quite plainly that administrators will back us up (in confrontations with parents, especially confrontations which enter the legal domain) as long as we have documentation. This means that for all decisions I make, whether of academic or a disciplinary nature in the life of one of my students, I need documentation that justifies my decisions.

This is good...mostly. Teachers cannot operate as loose cannons, specifically in regards to the content of one's teaching. The expectation is teach a state approved curriculum and use strategies supported by research as best practice. Since I am not observed constantly, documentation of planning, evidence of process and student products must be supplied on demand to an administrator when he or she asks. Documentation requires mandated curriculum and best practices be evidenced by these artifacts. Reasonable? Yes. Tedious? Insanely so, but nonetheless important.

I must also document why I have decided to answer a student's inappropriate behavior. Johnny refused to complete a math assignment today. Johnny appeared distracted by another student's appearance. I gave him preferential seating to remediate his lack of effort. (Professional speak for Johnny would not leave the little girl in front him alone, so I made him move his desk over by the wall.) Again, the reasonableness of this is apparent. When I take the significant step of intervening in a child's life by calling for a parent conference or sending a student to the principal's office, the documentation is useful in establishing patterns of student behavior and teacher intervention strategies.This answers some automatic questions--Is the teacher unfair?--while providing information that can guide effective questioning--What has been attempted; what has not?

This is where the adjective "baneful" enters and the reason for this post. The documentation of behavior becomes part of a permanent file that follows the student through school, and when necessary, into court. Serious administrative decisions such as suspensions are sometimes made guided by the record. Court actions may include the system entering the child's life because behavior has become lawless or the parents are dragging the child through court in a custody battle. Either way, the child's permanent records from school will be used to address various issues.

Now all those little notes of documentation various teachers have written are not necessarily available, but classroom documentation has driven reports and analysis of the student by administrators, which will have resulted in various labels that "officially" describe the child. Be assured that by the time these labels are written into the permanent record, the child has been confronted with the words. Often. Do labels create a detrimental self-awareness? The record may influence a judge's decision-making, that's reasonable; but the emotional state of the child may have or may be changing. The documentation supports actions which may miss the mark of addressing the current needs of the child. This is especially true in court actions considering the slow nature of jurisprudence.

You may be saying to yourself, "If the child has earned the consequences of his or her actions, so be it." I understand and even accept that logic on the natural level. Sorting this out becomes the fodder of "conservative" versus "liberal" politics, but that can of worms is not the point of this post! I originally intended this as an introduction to the astounding power of God's plan of forgiveness 7 x 70 and love keeping no record of wrong.

But that will have to be another post now.
Ah well, until next time...


Craig V. said...

Though I understand the reasoning, I've always felt uncomfortable with the fact that these records follow children through their school life. There was a famous study done a long time ago where teachers were given random evaluations of students. The scarry result was that grades at the end of the year tended to conform to the random evaluations. From this it's clear what harm the record (record of wrongs?) can do. What's missing is the ability to start with a clean slate.

ded said...

The record of wrongs is harmful I think, even outside the Body of Christ.

George said...

My first reaction is: welcome to the real world! Documentation is common among the professions. And your use of "preferential" to label seating by wall shows that you've mastered jatgon quite well.

What you might consider including, when appropriate, is "this behavior typical for age" or whatever, so that if records are used down the road you will have provided some context. Does doing so add a few seconds? Sure -- think of it as going the extra mile. In teaching (or any other job) your first obligation is not to serve students; rather, it's to be obedient to God, and going the extra mile is obedience, true?

Whenever I write file memos -- documentation -- I assume it may be later read by a jury and write accordingly. Yours may not be read by juries, but they may well be read by counselors who will use them to form opinions about the kids. So do what needs to be done to give them a full perspective.

postmodern redneck said...

I don't remember where I read this but someone somewhere said that "Legalism is the natural state of fallen man." I think this issue comes under that tendency.

ded said...

george, thanks for the excellent insight. You are certainly correct that any report can be written honestly and still lessen negative inference.

The truly difficult situations are when kids are in serious emotional trouble. These kids need intervention, but the system has little or no real wisdom in responding to them.

You are accurate--this is the real world!

ded said...

Hey, Phil! It's good to see a comment from you.

My post here is a piece of a larger legalism issue. The more lawless the general population becomes, the system has no alternative but to strengthen law enforcement and related punishments. Neither of which fix anything. These responses only suppress the whole population.

And the lawless under pressure just become more determined to live out what is in their heart.