A gas pilot light (what gaslighting and other weaponized behaviors can feel like when one’s on receiving end), February 11, 2021. (https://generalparts.com/)
I have been truly miffed and hurt before. But not like this. At least, not since my senior year of high school and my first year as a PhD student at Carnegie Mellon. But it is for my 17-year-old son that I am feeling this pain, this anger that ebbs, but doesn’t quite go away. It is apparent to me that so many teachers and staff in K-12 education are operating without a net with a pandemic all around them — and making the most of their ability to make life easier for their students anyway.
But there are others for whom the pandemic and all that has come with it literally means “students should just work as normal” or “even more than normal,” because they are “at home.” I already have colleagues at American University who think that they can take their 2.5-hour block classes and do what they did before the pandemic, lecturing for two hours at a time without giving students breaks, even assigning more work. I didn’t think I’d learn of the same stubbornness to adapt from high school teachers, too.
This story is one about my son’s struggles with school this year and off and on over the past few years. But it is also very much about how a high school in East Silver Spring, Maryland can let even a slightly above average student slip through the cracks, and then punish him, once noticed. It is about how teachers and administrators can circle the wagons like the NYPD or any other “blue wall of silence” police institution and gaslight the parents of such a child when confronted about how they have neglected and abused this child academically. My educated guess as an educator is that this issue with our own kid can easily be multiplied by a factor of a couple thousand across Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), and by hundreds of thousands in the 14,000 school districts across the US.
The story begins with our son in his senior year in a virtual remote learning environment, with some teachers (like his Creative Writing teacher) offering flexibility with due dates and other concerns, and other teachers (like his gym teacher and honors 12th grade English teacher), not so much. Our son has had his ups and downs throughout his high school years, but still was roughly a 3.0 or so student through his first three years. Even with the pandemic setting in last spring, he managed three As in his core courses. His combination of anxiety, social isolation, and (at times) inattention and laziness kept him from doing as well as he likely could’ve those years.
With schools in virtual remote mode for at least the first half of his senior year, we expected it to be pretty rough for our son. But not this rough. It seemed as if MCPS flipped a switch, and as a rule expected teachers, administrators, students, and parents to carry on this 2020-21 school year as if everything was normal. Daily attendance checks, more homework piled on top of homework, constant testing, points off for any late assignments, all part of the normal and toxic routine of rote discipline in the Common Core era.
And so it was for our son. In his gym class, his teacher marked him absent at least three times on days he opened his Zoom more than five (5) minutes past his start time. In the first three weeks, our son switched from Anatomy, Marine Biology, and Calculus to Creative Writing and Intro to Statistics, putting him behind in his courses overall.
But by the end of the first month, of all the classes, we did not expect honors English to be an issue. He had been taking honors English classes since seventh grade, after all. His honors English teacher for the first half of 12th grade, though, was not impressed with our son’s work. Even his A+ work:
You need to be more specific here. There is way to much generalization and because of that lack of specificity you kind of repeat the same ideas over and over again.
…you really didn’t follow the layout that we reviewed in class for this narrative. You need to show and not tell. Use a scene to demonstrate the theme rather than just telling the reader what they should know.
A little more detail as to the character and the setting would have been helpful here. This goes back to the “show don’t tell” conversations we’ve had about the project.
I’d like to hear a little more discussion with the group next time – that’s what I am assessing.
Because I have electronic access to our son’s assignments, grades, and comments, I read these off and on throughout his months with this honors English teacher. I figured that our son wasn’t quite doing his best work. But then again, who would be these days? I was busy grading my own students and their papers. Although I thought this teacher’s commentary was a bit tough, I assumed it was because our son kept making the same errors again and again.
Until I started reading his assignments and answers in more detail. Even when our son understood the assignment or essay and showed understanding, it was never enough for his honors English teacher. The last quote in the string above was about an assignment in which this teacher had assigned a perfect score. That was in December, just before the holiday break.
I emailed his honors English teacher, in fact, all of our son’s other 12th grade teachers and his counselor at that point. I wrote that we “fully understand your frustrations with [our child], and share them as well.” We asked for them to keep a look out for him, to not let him “blend into the background.” Notice that we did not say that we condoned this teacher’s frustrations or his “terse language” toward our child. Nor did we say to give him a grade he doesn’t deserve. We simply wanted the flexibility that any of us would want in the middle of a pandemic, in the midst of death (including the death of his grandmother at the beginning of December), on top of his ongoing issues with sleeplessness and anxiety.
Instead, our son’s honors English teacher became more frustrated, and never addressed us as his parents directly in response to my email. It all came to a head on our son’s last assignment, an essay on satire. Apparently the teacher expected our son to roll with one example on satire and point to how many methods of satire this one example checks off. Instead, our son used four examples, and went through those methods with those examples. In the end, the teacher scored it a 50/100.
At first, I really wasn’t that surprised, given our son’s history with this teacher. But then, in the middle of his comments, the teacher wrote:
As for the elements of satire that you explore, in order to address sarcasm you must include the term irony in order to fully demonstrate your understanding of the device- you also don’t give specific examples. A caricature is a satirical device but the example you give is not satire, it’s racist.
That was when I read the essay. What our son wrote was meandering, not well organized, but not exactly a disheveled mess either. It was pretty middle-of-the-road, like he wrote it in a rush (given the state of things, I’m certain he wrote it at the last minute). But it did contain a thesis, a mediocre and incomplete one, yet I clearly knew his topic and some of what he intended to cover just from reading it. He addressed the issue of irony in his second paragraph, and went on in detail to describe it in his fifth paragraph. The racism charge was ridiculous, given that our son had immediately pointed out that caricatures of groups like Jews were historical “stereotypes” as part of his essay. Plus, the nerve of this man to write, “I really wish I could’ve done more to help. With this assignment in particular I can help you with these types of essays- that help will prepare you for college if that’s the route you’re thinking of taking.” Tone deaf, with -isms and assumptions at his educator core.
I emailed our son’s honors English teacher, again, this time to ask him to take a second look, to note what our son did correctly in his essay, not just what our son didn’t do. Based on this teacher’s own rubric and nearly three decades of teaching students between 13 and 80 years old, our son’s score should’ve been between a 70 and a 79.
Instead, the teacher doubled down and accused our son of plagiarism, which was now the real reason for his score. My guess was that the teacher deliberately found another weakness in his essay, once confronted by me via email. He offered, though, to knock our’s son’s score up to 66/100, even though this wouldn’t change our son’s grade in the course.
I had to really, really contain myself in my follow-up email. As a father and an educator, I know all the tricks that teachers and professors use to get students and/or parents off their backs. But plagiarism is a very serious charge, the kind that requires evidence, and not mere accusation. That, and the fact that our son’s honors English teacher had not mentioned plagiarism, not at all, until I confronted him about our son’s grade and his unsubstantiated commentary.
I called for a conference with the teacher, our son’s counselor, the English Department chair, and (if available), our son’s 12th grade principal. I did it having already read our son’s essay, and having run it through Turnitin.com myself. Nine-tenths of the assignment was in our son’s own words. The other 10 percent? Parts of three sentences — about 55 words in all — included definitions that our son had not put quotes around. Two others had links to sources, ones our son clearly identified as sources. Inconsistent citing of sources, something I deal with from my own students so often it barely raises an eyebrow. It would have been enough for me to take off some additional points, but it is not a plagiarism offense.
As expected, the conference call that was supposed to be about the honors English teacher’s ill-treatment of and accusations toward our son was really an exercise in gaslighting him and us as his parents with the plagiarism accusation. Expected, but very disappointing. They kept telling us that our son was lucky to have not received a 0 and failing grade in the course. I said that they should be ashamed of themselves as educators, that they were “circling the wagons” like law enforcement. Our son’s honor’s English teacher said nothing for 35 minutes, and kept playing his TV in the background, which kept cutting in and out throughout the call (what a coward!). He was the only person on the call who didn’t speak.
They offered to share their so-called evidence. The “evidence” was exactly the same as when I ran our son’s essay through Turnitin the week before. If this is plagiarism, I would dare say three-quarters of the students I’ve taught since 1992 should be accused of such. MCPS’s definition of plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty? It includes the key phrase, “the willful giving or receiving” of an academic advantage of some sort, meaning the act has to be an intentional one. It can’t just be a couple of citation errors; evidence of intent must be involved. The wanton theft of other’s words must be involved. I seriously doubt three partial sentences in an average essay granted our son any “advantage” at all (having been a victim of plagiarism myself, I know the signs).
They did so much terribly wrong here, to our son, and to us as our son’s parents. They cared not about the teacher’s escalation of comments to our son. They cared not that the other accusations proved to be false. They cared only about three sets of quotation marks missing from a 900-word essay. They cared only about this, because they knew they could do nothing institutionally that would help students struggling with the pandemic. They cared only about the accusation because K-12 institutions care more about protecting a mediocre White male teacher than they do about Black and Brown students, as these institutions are racist and ableist to their core.
Luckily, our son has a different honors English teacher this semester, his final one at his Silver Spring high school. But as damaging as this could have been for him, at least I can say I stepped up as his dad, right? Except that this has conjured up lots of bad memories about the assholes who were my administrators at Mount Vernon HS, about folks whom I’ve known to be assholes in the education field over the years. Given this, why would anyone want to see these toxic sites of social control open up again for in-person instruction? I don’t.
I had thought about volunteering at our son’s high school this semester, with a smaller teaching load at my institutions this spring. But after this, why in hell would I want to volunteer with these uncaring shits who call themselves educators? They can all kiss my middle-aged Black ass!
However, if our son, a slightly above-average student, had to endure the bullshit of a bullshit-artist-as-certified-teacher, I can only imagine the number students across the achievement spectrum who are catching hell from teachers who have not adjusted well to teaching virtually in the midst of this pandemic. So maybe, just maybe, once I stop thinking about putting our son’s former teacher in a chokehold, I’ll see about volunteering once more.
But, even if everyone at our son’s soon-to-be-former high school is vaccinated by late this spring or by Fall 2021, I’m still wearing two masks and a face shield. The place is way too toxic for us.
I truly would like to hear from parents, students, even teachers, in Silver Spring, in Montgomery County, MD, in the DMV, in general. Tell me I’m wrong, that these aren’t examples of education as punitive and gaslighting. Or, conversely, tell me if you have had similar experiences with this high school and this school district, especially since the pandemic.