Please, Please, Please, Don’t Call My Mom

Like most school districts, NYC has a printed discipline code. Ours spells out four degrees of violations ranging from the mild, insubordination, perhaps, to the potentially lethal, bringing a gun to school.

Every student and every teacher is given a copy of the code and, to make sure the first day of school is as tedious as possible, foreshadowing the 179 or so to follow, the entire code is read to the students by their homeroom teacher.

Each category of indiscretion is paired with what the system has deemed an appropriate response or punishment. These range from a scowl to a lengthy suspension, and these, too, are read to the students.

Sometime in the day or two before the first day of school, teachers are given a roughly two-pound document to read and sign-off that they have done so by the end of the day. These are the Standard Operating Procedures.

The SOPs delineate the format of our lessons, the forms to be used to request classroom repairs, what to do if one is arrested outside of school (there is a different procedure if you are arrested inside the school), and much more.

One of the SOPs spells out the ladder of disciplinary referral. Starting with a student reprimand and ending with referral to the principal for possible suspension, the sequence of what teachers are supposed to do when a student misbehaves are spelled out.

Most of the measures are classroom-based: scowl; verbal reprimand; student conference; short-term (one period) removal from the room.

The next step is to call the parent or guardian.

All I have to do is mention that I might call is almost always enough to make most students offer abject apologies and beg, sometimes on their knees, for forgiveness.

I know from the looks on their faces that these students are terrified.

Sunday I saw the movie ‘Precious’ and I’m beginning to understand that fear.

If you haven’t seen it, Precious is the story of Clarisse Precious Jones, a high school-aged girl in Harlem, pregnant with her second child – both the result of rapes by her father – who is brutalized physically and emotionally by her mother.

Precious reads at the second grade level and when a teacher takes enough of an interest in the girl to try to visit her at her home in order to tell her of an alternative school she could attend, the mother beats, berates and blames Precious for “inviting” the intervention.

When Precious tries to escape the beating by running down the stairs, mom throws the TV at her, just missing hitting the poor girl in the head.

At school yesterday and today I asked my students what happens when a teacher calls home.

This is what these twelve and thirteen year olds told me:

“I get yelled at.”

“I get slapped and yelled at.”

“My mom spanks me with a belt.”

“I get beat and locked in my room.”

“I get grounded for a month… and I get hit a lot.”

I try to call parents with good news, like when a student aces a test, but one girl told me her father beats her even then just because a teacher called.

I don’t think anyone is treated as badly as Precious, but I’m not positive about that.

I’m starting to understand that fear I see when I mention a phone call to mom.

Now I’m afraid, too.

21 Responses to Please, Please, Please, Don’t Call My Mom

  1. Michael J says:

    99% of the time that a “teacher calls home” it’s because of a problem. No matter what the specific words used, the content of the message is “you, the parent, have to do something about it.”

    I bet, but don’t know, that if mom got a regular update on jr, say once a week, letting her know how junior did last week, the reaction could be very different.

    Many parents do not receive regular communication adult to adult about a student’s progress. Both the victories and the defeats.

    I wonder if you have any thoughts about whether regularly connecting up with the parents could be just the thing to get your eight graders to settle down.

    • 808lika says:

      In answer to Michael J, I do think that EARLY in the year calls to each home (only about half of my students live with parents) are helpful in establishing communication. I introduce myself and let the family know where, how and the best times to reach me. Many at home, will give an email addy. It’s an incredible amount of work the first before school weekend and first couple school days to call 160-180 homes of my (8th gr) students. But, sadly MANY of them comes from homes that hit (and worse)and this initial contact helps to kind of screen what a response to a future call will be. Yes, some kids get beaten whenEVER a teacher calls home. But NOT that first call.

      • Deven Black says:

        I also reach out to parents in the first days of school, calling to introduce myself, inviting parents to visit, and giving them my email address and my cell phone number. Most parents seem to welcome this contact and I have developed warm, lasting relationships with the parents of some of my former students. Other parents, however, treat any contact as an intrusion. These are the parents who either come to parent-teacher meetings just to pick up their child’s report card in the cafeteria and don’t make it upstairs to the classroom or who don’t bother t0 show up at all.

        I take my role an adult in the lives of my students very seriously because I know that for some of them I am the one adult in their lives who listens and responds to them. This is why I have students, even some not in my classes, coming to my room on their lunch period or hanging out in my class after school. They know I like them and respect them, but I also set high standards for their conduct.

        One girl recently questioned why I am so firm about behavior and I explained the concept of ‘loco parentis,’ to which she responded, “I ALREADY have loco parents; I need someone sane in my life!”

      • Michael J says:

        @808lika,

        Have you ever considered sending text messages instead of phone calls. I ask because since my work life was in the printing industry, I know the technology is readily available and pretty easy to deploy.

        I would think that every parent, even in the poorest neighborhoods have cell phones.

  2. Barb L. says:

    Your blog is chilling! I’m studying to be a teacher and had the thought that I could call regularly to say good things about each student, as opposed to only calling when something less than good happens. To think a child could be beaten even for a phone call praising her?

    Reading the comment above, I’m hoping that regular contact is the answer but I am very curious now to hear what teachers feel about this…

  3. Sounds like hell. I used to work in domestic violence and saw a lot of that, but I can’t say I saw any of it in the general school system just for a call home. Where do you teach?

    I like the idea about calling for positive info.

  4. resource220 says:

    I have your blog in my gReader and I find your articles well written and thoughtful. This one here scares the hell out of me. Maybe I am over reacting to your blog entry and if I am please, please delete this comment.

    Your post concerns me a great deal. The information you have provide in it sounds as though there may be child abuse occurring and you now may be aware of it.

    Have you spoken to your administrator about what you have stated in this entry? You probably should. If in your state you are a Mandated Reporter and you neglect to report this information appropriately…there could be repercussions for you professionally.

    Again you have raised a huge point that many teachers do not think about when they call home – what happens after they get off the phone? Thank you for raising the question, I wrote a blog entry on this same issue as a result of reading your blog and linked back to here.

    Hopefully, I am not reading too much between the lines and over-reacting.

    Harold

    • Deven Black says:

      I am a mandatory reporter and I watch very closely for signs of abuse. Should I see any I would not hesitate to report it, but I will not report abuse based on solicited anecdotal statements. Should a child come to me and report abuse on his or her own I will report it immediately.

  5. [...] Please, Please, Please, Don’t Call My Mom [...]

  6. Deven Black says:

    The parents of my students, like their children, often have short-term cell phones, many almost disposable, which they use with phone cards or pay-as-you-go plans. Their numbers change frequently and we are not always told when they do.

    When dealing with families in high poverty areas one cannot operate from the same assumptions one has from a middle class background. Poverty tends to make even well-intentioned people take paths different than those you or I might take.

  7. Michael J says:

    Fair enough. Do you think it might make sense to use different strategies for the different problems. For those with cell phones, SMS.

    My bet is that even in the poorest neighborhoods, over 60% maybe more have cell phones.

    For those without a piece of paper that goes home and is signed and maybe returned. But in any case a duplicate of the paper stays with the teacher.

    Let’s assume for the moment that the piece of paper can be created with NO extra time invested by the classroom teacher.

  8. brinkmanship says:

    Thanks for an interesting post. The adverse consequences of a phone call to parents may not be limited to poor children in the inner city, but teachers and other adults tend to shrug off their suspicions when kids come from families that are not so “other.” Just a thought…

  9. [...] hearing what students’ parents do when a teacher calls home, a teacher rethinks that [...]

  10. KitchenSink says:

    Call me old fashioned, but sometimes kids exaggerate this kind of stuff to avoid getting that call. Children of all socioeconomic backgrounds are keen sociologists when it comes to adults, and tt age 11, 12, 13, we can be extremely crafty.

  11. New teacher says:

    *Let’s assume for the moment that the piece of paper can be created with NO extra time invested by the classroom teacher.*

    If only this were possible. I’m a first year teacher (but older) and I have to tell you that every good idea HAS to be vetted for how much time it will take up.

    If I were to spend my prep period actually prepping and could not only do all my planning, photocopying and weekly administration required stuff (imagine hysterical laughter here at this possibility) in just that time — well, I’d still have grading, entering grades, looking at individual students’ performance and planning interventions, and all the other bits and pieces to finish.

    I only have about 40 students, but if I spend a total of 3 minutes a day on each student…that’s 2 1/2 hours per DAY. THREE minutes for grading, noticing trends, calling home, writing up behavior sheets, sending home homework notices, etc.

  12. Michael J says:

    I don’t want to clog this thread.

    But I think I can prove to you that new technology in the worlds of printing and copying can do exactly what I proposed as a hypothetical. Probably all the physical pieces are already in your school and the tech is either free / very inexpensive.

    To be clear it still needs to get some functionalities to connect, but that’s the way social media has always developed. Sometimes much faster and easier than anyone expects.

    I would be glad to continue this discussion in the easiest context. Easiest for me is at twitter 140 chrs at a time. My twitter names is @toughloveforx. Just DM or @ and we can see what develops.

  13. [...] post I made in reaction to seeing the film “Precious” and talking to my students about what [...]

  14. Bridgit says:

    Hi Deven Black,
    I’m Bridgit Dengel Gaspard, LCSW and want to introduce myself as I was one of the callers when you were on The Brian Lehrer Show discussing how you changed some of your protocols after seeing the movie, Precious. I discussed how when I was a social worker in a Brooklyn pubic elementary school, a surprise was discovering how many parents had not gotten over their own difficulties in the same school their child was now attending. Currently I am a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan at the New York Voice Dialogue Institute, http://www.newyorkvoicedialogueinstitute.org, which I co-founded with Dr. Dassie Hoffman. I am also a contributing writer covering health/wellness for More.com and I just wanted to say hello, Happy New Year and I am glad you are discussing this disturbing issue.

    • Deven Black says:

      Hello, Ms. Gaspard, thanks for getting in touch and Happy New Year to you. You made an excellent point on the show. Oddly, the teacher in the room next to mine is a young man who attended the middle school we teach in. He seems to have adjusted quite well. I had my set of issues when I was in high school (I’m a two-time drop out) and I’m not sure how I’d handle it if my son attended any of the schools I did. Fortunately, he is attending a different school and is a much better adjusted student (not that that is always a good thing).

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