What Do You Expect

Fifth grade teacher Mary Anne Brown is juggling a lot. She's pushing students to achieve, addressing the needs of ESOL students and families, and battling her feeling of displacement among her colleagues. Meanwhile, she and her teammates face difficult decisions regarding student nominations for the few slots in the after-school remediation program. Which students should receive this extra support?

Mary Anne holds the first of her fall conferences.

She wasn’t prepared for the whole family to pile-in, but pile-in they did. Marcos Torres was accompanied by both parents, two siblings, and his grandmother. Everyone exchanged awkward handshakes, smiles, and nods before finally being seated.

Mary Anne Brown looked at her carefully prepared folder of test results and placement scores, and she knew she was in trouble. This pile of data and jargon was difficult enough to wade through with an English proficient parent. In this case, she thought it would take a miracle to even make a dent in all she had to say about Marcos, and she silently cursed her decision to drop Spanish in college.

See a copy of Marco’s recent reading assessment below:

With Marcos and his brother Nico translating, each interaction between Mary Anne and the Torres family took twice as long as usual. So Mary Anne whittled down the list of items to cover to her essential two: reading and work habits. Marcos’s reading progress had been slow but steady. He was still well below grade level—nearly two years—but he was progressing. Marcos’s work habits were also improving. He brought in completed homework on most days, and this was a big change. Mary Anne speculated that Nico had been helping him with reading assignments at home, and she figured that was ok.

By the time Mary Anne had attempted explaining this with the help of the boys, the allotted twenty minutes was up. Mary Anne looked at her watch as everyone stood to leave. Mr. Torres said something to Nico, who offered, “My father wants to know if Marcos is behaving.”

“Oh, yes, he’s behaving very nicely.” Mary Anne smiled at Marcos and told him to keep up the good work and that she’d see him in the morning. She hoped that her points were clear to his family, but it was difficult to tell.

There wasn’t much time to speculate. Mary Anne just managed to swallow a sip of tea as the next parent entered the room. Eric Moore’s mother was an emergency room nurse, and she came straight from work in her hospital uniform.

Eric’s conference was one of several Mary Anne had been dreading. It’s never easy to tell a mother bad news about her son. As much as Mary Anne had rehearsed what she hoped to say, she could find no really good way to address Eric’s issues. He was complicated, to be sure. Mary Anne felt he wasn’t getting what he needed from the fifth grade team, and she and her colleagues at least agreed about that.

“I’ve had enough of his behavior yo-yoing,” Caroline Dabney had announced at their last team meeting.

“He’s either goofing off and talking back to me when I correct him, or he’s withdrawn and disengaged. Either way, he’s not accomplishing much during language arts block aside from driving me nuts! He really needs to buckle down if he’s going to be on grade level in reading by the end of the year.”

Although they all saw that there was a problem, there was little agreement regarding a solution. Caroline and Hal typically favored heavy-handed approaches to classroom management and discipline. For them, it was their way or the highway. Avoiding confrontation was Fran’s guiding light, so it was hard to tell where she was on this issue. Mary Anne gravitated toward a more inclusive approach and focused on nurturing relationships between herself and her students. But no one was getting through to Eric.

Mary Anne didn’t see Eric’s disruptive behavior in her math class, but she did see him disengage. She kept struggling to find a way to motivated and involve him without turning him off completely.

She was at a loss as to how to explain all these subtleties to Eric’s mother. Her picture of him off to the side during a recent math activity was clear in her mind as Mrs. Moore took her seat at the table.

Mary Anne was hoping Mrs. Moore could help her find a way to steer Eric onto the right path. She began, “Hi, Mrs. Moore. I’m glad you could come in today, since we’re all concerned about Eric.”

“Is he acting up again?” Mrs. Moore responded.

“Not so much in my class,” Mary Anne replied. “In math, he’s just not interested.” Mary Anne went on to describe a recent math lesson.

“I don’t know what to do about that,” Mrs. Moore shrugged. “I never liked math either. Not that that’s an excuse!” she smiled. “But what concerns me most is his reading. He never reads at home.”

Mary Anne smiled to soften her words. “His reading teacher says he acts up a lot for her. She just can’t get him to behave, and of course, that affects his progress.” She showed Mrs. Moore Eric’s reading scores.

See a copy of Eric’s recent reading assessment below: 

Mrs. Moore’s whole body drooped as Mary Anne explained what the scores meant. “What can we do?” she asked.

“I’m thinking he might be a good candidate for the after-school reading program—that is, if the funding comes through.”

Mary Anne attends a team meeting and reflects on her position at Lakedale Elementary School.

The table was littered with napkins piled with popcorn, nuts, and leftover Halloween candy. The four teachers chatted during a few moments of downtime before their weekly meeting.

As she listened to the retelling of some of the day’s events, Mary Anne munched on candy corn and considered her colleagues. She had worked with Hal, Caroline, and Fran for two years now and enjoyed them all. They leaned on each other a lot, and all did their best to make their difficult jobs more manageable. In fact, Mary Anne often told friends that if it wasn’t for her teammates, she doubted she could do her job half as well. There was a certain closeness that came with this interdependence, and Mary Anne liked that about teaching.

There was a little part inside Mary Anne, though, that never quite felt comfortable. Although the school was full of diverse students, she was the only minority teacher. There were things she knew her teammates would never really understand about that. She was constantly aware of an additional layer of responsibility to her students. She thought she understood them in ways her white colleagues couldn’t, and she felt a protective need to look out for them in ways she believed they’d never know.

Mary Anne saw herself as a role model. She felt a great deal of pressure, as if she was always on stage, being scrutinized and measured. In addition to all the expectations heaped upon teachers, Mary Anne carried this extra burden every day.

The fifth grade team works on nominations for after school reading remediation.

“Standards! Standards! Standards! That’s all anyone ever talks about around here. Can’t we please talk about kids?”

“Let’s talk about both. We need to finish this list of after school remediation nominees today. Paul wants it by the end of the week.”

Paul Toomey was the Lakedale Elementary School principal. He had proudly announced funding for the new reading remediation program at the last faculty meeting and was anxious to notify the parents of eligible students. The program was intended to boost reading comprehension and test scores through focused, small group instruction.

After a brief outline of the funding and a lengthy discussion, the faculty had decided that groups of three or four students per reading teacher would be their chosen model. Larger groups didn’t seem like a good use of time or money. Together they worked out the eligibility guidelines that Mary Anne had on the table before her.

See the After School Reading Remediation Eligibility Guidelines below:

The guidelines had seemed appropriate enough at the time, but when Mary Anne and her teammates began talking about actual students, things became muddy.

Hal taught the lowest reading group. “What about Marcos? He could really use some help. He’s eager, cooperative, and seems like he’s at a turning point. I think the timing would be great for him. He’s ready to take off. Do you think his parents could pick him up?”

” I do,” Mary Anne paused. “But, he’s receiving ESOL services. Wouldn’t that eliminate him under point number two?”

” I guess it would, technically. What about our new student, Stephanie? We haven’t done her formal reading assessment yet, but I’ll bet she’ll fit. I’ll give her the assessment tomorrow to check it out.”

“OK. I’m also thinking about Jason and Chris. They’re really struggling, and Ashley would do well in there, too.”

As their discussion progressed, Mary Anne listened for the right moment to mention Eric. “Caroline, what about Eric? I think he’d really benefit from small group reading instruction.”

“Sure, if he’d get serious about it. Who wouldn’t benefit?” Caroline shrugged and shook her head, “Look, we don’t have enough slots as it is. I don’t think we should subject the other kids in that group to Eric’s moodiness and lack of drive. We need to nominate students who are going to work hard and focus on learning. I don’t think including Eric is a good idea at all.”

Eric lands a trip to the office.

It was a crisp, breezy fall day, just the kind of day that might tempt Mary Anne to stay outside past the allotted fifteen minute recess. She and her teammates enjoyed a small dose of adult time while keeping one eye on their students at play.

The soccer field was bubbling with activity. There was some real talent out there, and Mary Anne enjoyed seeing this side of her students.

“Do you know what my mother told me yester…” Caroline was interrupted by the loud thunk! of the soccer ball followed quickly by a pain-induced howl. Mary Anne had seen it out of the corner of her eye, but Caroline was the first to arrive on the scene.

Drew was doubled-over and rocking on the ground, arms folded across his stomach, tears welling in his eyes. “You idiot!” he nearly sobbed. “You saw me coming!”

“Did not! I did not! Liar!”

Eric was quickly confronted by Drew’s sidekick, Tyler, “You did that on purpose. You did. I SAW him, Ms. Dabney. Eric looked right at Drew and kicked the ball straight into his stomach!”

Caroline commanded a lot of attention from her five-foot, two-inch frame. She was the take charge type, and take charge she did. She shooed the onlookers away, got Drew to his feet and on his way toward the nurse, promised to write up a discipline referral for Eric as soon as we returned to class, and told him where he could spend the rest of recess. “Have a seat on the bench, young man. Now!”

Mary Anne and Mrs. Moore discuss Eric after school.

Mary Anne regretted not handling the discipline referral herself. After Eric was pulled from the soccer game, there was another minor injury— just a scrape requiring a Band-Aid and a little bit of attention, and then it was time to go inside for science. Since Caroline had planning the last block of the day and she had handled the issue on the field, she wrote the referral to Mr. Toomey. He typically met with students involved to determine what happened. Any event resulting in injury would get reported to all the families involved.

At dismissal time, Mary Anne walked out into the afternoon sun with her students. After seeing them off at the bus lot, she walked over to the carpool area and saw Mrs. Moore.

“So, I hear Eric had a problem with his kicking on the soccer field today,” Mrs. Moore offered. She raised one eyebrow and gave her son a sideways look.

“Yes, well…” Mary Anne began.

“Wait for me in the car, would you Eric? I’d like to talk to Mrs. Brown for a minute.” The two adults walked a few feet away, and Mrs. Moore continued. “Look, I don’t know what happened today. Eric’s not telling me much,” she paused and looked back at her son, “I want to follow-up with you about the after school reading program you mentioned. I’m worried about Eric, and I’d really like him to participate. When does it start?”