A call for students to be more responsible for their learning

Mpaza S. Kapembwa of DeKalb  is a 2011 Cross Keys High School graduate who now attends Williams College.

He is a Gates Millennium Scholar, Coca Cola Scholar and Dell Scholar. This is the second piece he has written for the Get Schooled blog

By Mpaza S. Kapembwa

Our method of fixing problems in education today seems to be laying all the blame on our teachers. We have grown comfortable not being responsible. At the same time, we want all of the benefits of shared responsibility without sharing in the burden. We are quick to frown when someone wakes us up from a restful sleep. A teacher reminding us of our own responsibility is akin to the alarm going off in the wee hours of the morning. Parents see their dreams not being realized in their children and they lash out at the dream snatcher — the teacher.

When President Obama visited Seoul in 2009, he asked President Lee Myung-bak about his biggest challenge in education. Myung-bak said he wished parents didn’t care so much about their children’s success. South Korea’s students have outperformed the rest of the world for most of the last decade. It shouldn’t come as a surprise being that their main problem is “over commitment” by parents to their children’s education.

In 2011, Amy Chua published her best-selling book “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which focused on the child-rearing practices of  Chinese mothers. The book recounts her strict, perhaps extreme, method of raising her children: no play dates, piano practice for hours each day, threatening to donate their toys if they rebelled. Such an attitude toward cultivating success stands in stark contrast to the most visible aspects of American education.

While Ms. Chua’s methods might have been extreme, it is worth considering that American education in general needs to be a little more like a Tiger Mother. Our system values self-esteem, happiness, friendship, and feeling good above true knowledge, wisdom and understanding.

Calling for students to be more responsible for their education and for parents to cease blaming teachers won’t work with politicians, policymakers, struggling students and the general public. All of these groups believe they have something to lose if they accept this premise. Struggling students are allowed to advance in our system of leaving no child behind — success is more important to the grown-ups than to the child. The general public will gladly direct the blame to teachers to avoid looking in the mirror.

Education only works when there is a certain level of synergy between the community/home students, and educators. Working together, they form a very powerful triangle. Cut one corner and it collapses. We are trying to form this triangle but only focusing on our educators. Our “solutions” are designed according to an emotional convenience. It is so much easier to work on the teacher. Working on the student causes feelings of discomfort and reflects badly on parents. Yet it can’t be denied that the comforts of the blame game are wearing thin as our students are being put at a disadvantage.

One of my high school teachers told me that dodge ball was removed from schools because some kids did not have the agility to outmaneuver the ball. Our academic policy views have similar but unintended results. I fear we may be expelling learning from our schools simply because it is not pain-free for all participants.

–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog

54 comments Add your comment

Former Teacher2

May 14th, 2012
4:51 am

This young black immigrant from Zambia gets it. When thousands of teachers say the same thing, they are ignored. Perhaps his thoughtful words will get through. Sad that he can never be our president. I’d sure vote for him in November.

Elizabeth

May 14th, 2012
4:54 am

” I fear we may be expelling learning from our schools because it is not pain-free for all students.”

This is exactly the problem. Learning has to be “fun” and “easy” all the time or kids don’t do it. Some don’t do it anyway. The stark fact is that no all learning is fun or easy. Nor should it be. But we have bought into the self esteem pundits and parents who do not want their children to be frustrated, bored, unhappy, or challenged. I am not saying it should be these things all the time. But no adult I know of has a job in which there is all fun and no struggle or frustration. These challenges allow us to succeed and learn to work through problems, not around them. Kids can’t do this today because we do not allow them to. We can’t or we get complaints and poor evaluations. So we have adults who can’t keep jobs because tghey are used to doing only the easy and fun parts.

Dr. Craig Spinks/ Georgians for Educational Excellence

May 14th, 2012
5:41 am

MSK,

Well-thought and -written.

Long time educator

May 14th, 2012
6:12 am

He is stating the obvious and what most educators commenting on this blog say on a consistent basis. When we say it, parents on this blog often say we are whining and blaming. We are stating facts. We don’t need their help academically, we just need them to tell their precious ones to mind the teacher and communicate that they value education. That’s it; it is that simple. In cases where the student effectively has no parent involvement or a very negative home environment, teachers and schools need to be able to provide the discipline and structure that the family lacks with firm consequences.

Frustrated Parent

May 14th, 2012
6:27 am

For the past 3 years under NCLB my son, a rising freshman, has consistently been passed along despite his failure to turn in projects or homework on time, if at all. I have begged and pleaded with my county school system to hold him back. I have had knock down drag out fights with my son at home because of his attitude that he will be passed along regardless of how he does. Yet, time and again, his attitude has become fact. He is not stupid by any means, he just doesn’t want to do the work, what little of it there is assigned. I guess I have a hard time reconciling this with the way it was when I was in school, corporal punishment, failing a grade, students being held back due to poor grades, dreading trips to the principals office because I knew worse awaited me at home when my parents found out. This article is right, we are expelling education from our school system, along with personal responsibility and respect.

mountain man

May 14th, 2012
6:29 am

Students to be responsible for their learning? Parents to support the education process? That is crazy talk! We all know that the sole reponsibility lies with the teacher! If the child comes from a neglectful and abusive family – it is the teacher’s fault. If administrators change a studen’ts grade or otherwise “socially promotes” a student who has not mastered the subject matter, it is the teacher’s fault. If a child misbehaves in class (the same way they misbehave at home) it is the teacher’s fault. If the child tells the teacher to go f*ck themselves, that is the teacher’s fault. If the child does not come to school, and the parent allows it , that is the teacher’s fault.

Everything is the teacher’s fault, because we know that parents and administrators are perfect.

mountain man

May 14th, 2012
6:29 am

And we also know students are perfect, too.

ScienceTeacher671

May 14th, 2012
6:38 am

Excellent essay. I’m very glad to get to start my work week reading this — someone besides teachers “gets it.”

MSTeach

May 14th, 2012
6:51 am

Thank You. Perhaps if more voices like yours were heard, education would change for the better.

Teacherhubbyindade

May 14th, 2012
6:59 am

@Maureen – would like to get this and other articles from you published in our local weekly paper. My wife is a HS teacher and many of your articles are spot on to what she (and others) run into on a daily basis. If this is possible, where would I start in making this happen?

catlady

May 14th, 2012
7:04 am

When I was in school, if I was having trouble with a subject (a 91 in algebra 1 in 8th grade, for example) it was MY doing, not my teacher’s. I wasn’t working hard enough, practicing enough. I would never have been allowed to say, “She didn’t show us how to do this!” My parents knew that my teachers were doing their jobs, but I was falling down on mine! How different that is from now!

johnny too good

May 14th, 2012
7:23 am

I repsosted this because it is 100% accurate. My thoughts exactly

“I fear we may be expelling learning from our schools because it is not pain-free for all students.”

This is exactly the problem. Learning has to be “fun” and “easy” all the time or kids don’t do it. Some don’t do it anyway. The stark fact is that no all learning is fun or easy. Nor should it be. But we have bought into the self esteem pundits and parents who do not want their children to be frustrated, bored, unhappy, or challenged. I am not saying it should be these things all the time. But no adult I know of has a job in which there is all fun and no struggle or frustration. These challenges allow us to succeed and learn to work through problems, not around them. Kids can’t do this today because we do not allow them to. We can’t or we get complaints and poor evaluations. So we have adults who can’t keep jobs because tghey are used to doing only the easy and fun parts.

Forced to be Anon >:(

May 14th, 2012
7:25 am

Wonderful essay! Thank you for posting. I have noticed in the younger generation of parents (think those in their thirties with first and second graders) that the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way. The age of bubble-wrapped children is slowly starting to dissipate.

One thing to consider: when everyone but the students takes responsibility for failure, that means that they also get the credit for success. Doesn’t everyone want children to be able to gain their OWN success and not the success of their supporting adults?

Mary Elizabeth

May 14th, 2012
7:36 am

“Education only works when there is a certain level of synergy between the community/home students, and educators. Working together, they form a very powerful triangle. Cut one corner and it collapses.”
===========================================

Most, as children, have played the game of “Gossip.” Tell a person a secret, and let that person whisper the secret in the ear of another, and the other then whispers the secret in a third person’s ear, etc. By the time the secret gets back to the original person, it bears no resemblance to the original secret, communicated

There has been a rumor started by a certain self-interested political group, within American society, which wishes to dismantle public education for private education for ideological reasons, as well as for personal monetary reasons. The rumor that they have maliciously, and falsely, spread to – serve their purposes – is that public school teachers are wanting. They know that they will have “cut one corner” from the public educational “triangle” by disparaging public school teachers, and they further know that the public educational system will “collapse” through the public’s belief in their false rumor, spread. Afterall, if public school teachers are poor performers, overall, then public education, overall, must be, also.

Time for the general public to see what malicious untruths have been generated and spread about public school teachers, by whom, and why.

Mary Elizabeth

May 14th, 2012
7:39 am

CORRECTION: Not “a certain group,” but “certain groups”

Tabitha

May 14th, 2012
7:57 am

Good post. It’s a great reminder that if teachers want parents to be part of the team that the teachers must be part of the team too.When teachers decide that they indoctrinate and the parents should just shut up and provide a little discipline the system goes awry. When the administration doesn’t fix issues with bad teachers, the parents check out of the triangle.

But, when the parents value education and see the teacher as a valuable and esteemed part of raising their children the system can work. When administrators take full and effectvie action to fix issues with teacher who don’t hold up their side of the triangle and issues with children who disrupt the environment the systems works. When teachers value parents and thier input, don’t demean their perspectives and their beliefs then the sytem can work

Or you can have the system you have now.

It may be that the decline in the function of the family has made the public education model untenable.

Sparky

May 14th, 2012
8:09 am

It’s funny people agree with his point about being too easy on kids and then say this poorly written, content-free essay was excellent.

AlreadySheared

May 14th, 2012
8:22 am

But wait, Maureen told us last week that she is “… always surprised when parents tell me their kids have three to four hours of homework a night given the lack of evidence that homework enhances student achievement”

This topic attracted numerous posts indicating that homework was unnecessary, punitive, or inconsistent with the learning styles of the posters’ children. The discussion was initiated by a bona fide clinical psychologist who hopes to help students find their way out of “the homework trap.”

Surely we are not now suggesting that students should work!? Harder!?

Maureen Downey

May 14th, 2012
8:28 am

@Already, Is doing hours of homework the sole definition of “working hard”? Can’t students work hard in school without three or four hours of homework a night?
Maureen

AlreadySheared

May 14th, 2012
8:28 am

I have seen this link posted in “get schooled” before. It is still funny, and still not safe for work:

http://www.theonion.com/video/in-the-know-are-tests-biased-against-students-who,17966/

Yankee Prof

May 14th, 2012
8:37 am

Thank you, Mr. Kapembwa, for modeling the kind of proactive dedication to one’s education that so many more of your generational peers need to develop.

Dr. John Trotter

May 14th, 2012
8:41 am

Well said, Ms. Kapembwa. When you finish school and gets some experience, we may have to hire you on the MACE Staff! This is essentially the same message that we have been pounding since the inception of MACE in 1995. We have not vacillated one scintilla from the notion that all of the burdens for learning has been placed on the backs of the teachers and none on the backs of the students and their parents. The students should shoulder the onus for learning. A teacher can teacher a student, not learn the student just like a physician can treat a patient but not heal a patient and a lawyer can defend the accused but acquit the accused.™

I congratulate you, Ms. Kapembwa, for your prescient insights and wish you hearty successes in your endeavors in life. Keep up the good work! Perhaps with more voices like yours, the hellish and moronic blame-the-teachers-first movement will die like the old Edsel.

http://www.theteachersadvocate.com

Dr. John Trotter

May 14th, 2012
9:00 am

Sorry for the typo: A teacher can teach[er] a student…

claytondawg

May 14th, 2012
9:13 am

What a terrific article which states factual points and not made-up terminologies from legislators, parents, or so-called “experts.” As someone stated above, this responsible and intelligent young lady has also given me a smile and a brighter beginning for the week. I, too, congratulate you on your successes so far and your future endeavors. And, I see a very bright future for you. Thanks…as we all know…’education can’t cure the ills of society,” but if we let it, education can certainly be a hopeful beginning.

AlreadySheared

May 14th, 2012
9:20 am

“HE is a Gates Millennium Scholar”

(Dr. J started with ‘Ms.’, now you’re piling on with ‘young lady’)

Victimhood

May 14th, 2012
9:47 am

The real driver here is the word responsibility. There has been a radical shift over the last generation to blame authority and circumstances for everything. The students fail, therefore they are victims of powerful interests – . And we have all been told repeatedly that victims can’t be held responsible for outcomes. In fact victimhood has become the greatest virtue in our society.

One of the principal reason this young student has succeeded is that he and his parents had not been inculcated with the victim message. It’s time to shoot the messengers of failure, the trap of “low expectations” as GB so aptly characterized it.

Shar

May 14th, 2012
9:48 am

While I cannot agree with Long time educator that students just need to “mind their teachers” (sorry, but we all know that not all teachers are great and that blind obedience ends badly) I completely agree that parents, students and schools (understood to comprise teachers, administrators and facilities) are co-equal in responsibility for effective education. Our strategies for improvement can be boiled down to funding or starving the latter of these three, and ignoring the first two on the assumption that constitutional guarantees of free education mean that parents and students cannot be held accountable.

Parents and their current students are the recipients of a huge gift from taxpayers, and it is their responsibility to make the most of that gift so that students can pay back their country with their adult labors and future students can inherit a solvent, functional school system. Right now, far too many parents and students look at school as something they are owed rather than the other way around.

Education is and must be free to the student, but not to the parent. Every parent should be required to deliver their children to school prepared to learn, which means at minimum healthy, rested, with homework done and ready to behave in a way that respects learning. In addition, every parent should be required to participate in the school for at least 20 hours per semester. In that way, the school would benefit from the assistance provided but the parents would benefit far more, as they would be able to see how their child’s progress and behavior compared to others’ and become familiar with the teacher and his/her methods and requirements. It is easy to blame an authority figure you don’t know when your child is struggling. Having first-hand experience of one’s child in comparison to their cohort and familiarity with a teacher gives a far more realistic picture and, hopefully, would drive the cooperation necessary for success.

BT

May 14th, 2012
9:54 am

WOW…refreshing coming from a student. He is dead on accurate!!

Dr. John Trotter

May 14th, 2012
9:54 am

Mr. Kapembwa, please forgive my mistake, OK? Thanks! @AlreadySheared: Thanks to you too, mam…or sir. Ha!

AlreadySheared

May 14th, 2012
10:05 am

@Shar:
‘ I cannot agree with Long time educator that students just need to “mind their teachers” (sorry, but we all know that not all teachers are great and that blind obedience ends badly)’

9.5 for your baffling, but seamless non-sequitur/bs strawman combination with respect to ‘mind the teacher’.

1) If a teacher has to be ‘great’ before students mind him or her, that will only lead us to – oops, never mind, we’re already there.

2)’blind obedience ends badly’ – seriously? You’re concerned that teachers will use the authority they SHOULD be vested with to use ‘blind obedience’ to compel students to do what, exactly?? Rob liquor stores? Sell drugs? Commit crimes against humanity?

school_is_home

May 14th, 2012
10:15 am

This semester I tutored a college student who informed me that she should be doing better in the class because she’s paying for tutoring and that I should just tell her what to punch into the calculator because she’s not responsible for what she doesn’t know (never mind the syllabus).
I also tutored another person who complains about the work being difficult (they like the teacher, so no complaints there), but who refuses to do extra practice until they master the material.
Neither lacks ability, both want great grades, yet neither seems able to make the quantum leap to connect their effort with their results.

I’m glad to hear that the tides are shifting for the lower elementary students, because there are some strange things happening at the higher levels.

AlreadySheared

May 14th, 2012
10:31 am

@school_is_home

My hope is that college ends up being the rocky shore upon which these waves of edu-hooey break. If not, God help us all when legions of self-esteem-steeped slackards and dullards become the doctors and engineers of the future.

Digger

May 14th, 2012
10:41 am

Learn Chinese everyone!

Angela

May 14th, 2012
10:49 am

@Maureen,

I totally appreciate this article. I feel that it is long over due. However, and very unfortunate that many many of the bloggers and readers will not agree. As one blogger has states:

“While I cannot agree with Long time educator that students just need to “mind their teachers” (sorry, but we all know that not all teachers are great and that blind obedience ends badly) I completely agree that parents, students and schools (understood to comprise teachers, administrators and facilities) are co-equal in responsibility for effective education.”

I have said this time and time again, teachers in this country are the least respected professionals. No one ever complains about the poor attorney, doctor, nurse, etc. No one ever discredits these professionals. There is not one of these professions that would be, if it were not for a teacher(s).

I ask all of you parents, stakeholders, etc. stop blamming the teachers. We only TRY to teach what you send us. We have to only assume that you send us your BEST product. If your product is not prepared to think, learn, read, write, decode, etc. it is not the teacher’s fault it is Yours and your Product’s fault.

Thank you again, Maureen.

William Casey

May 14th, 2012
11:18 am

@AlreadySheared: I don’t know about medical schools but DO know that “self-esteem-steeped slackers and dullards” DON’T make it through Georgia Tech to become engineers. Feel very safe.

William Casey

May 14th, 2012
11:19 am

Excellent essay.

AlreadySheared

May 14th, 2012
11:26 am

@William Casey:
Based on personal experience, I agree (Go Jackets).

However, as you are likely aware, Georgia is establishing a new College of Engineering @ UGA because getting into Ga Tech is just too darn hard for some students. Cross your fingers on that one.

Angela

May 14th, 2012
11:49 am

I would like to also, add to my post above. When you (parents) send your second graders to school without pencil, paper and not even at least a book bag that is on you. When little Besty, Shaqueta, Marqel, Jacq does not have the tools he/she needs to take education seriously don’t blame the teacher. You have sent your child out of your home without these tools. You are who have set the poor of the poorest example for your child, not the teacher.

I have students in my second grade class who come to school without bookbags, pencil, and paper every day (this has been the entire school year). I have students who come to school on a regular basis at 9:30 and 10:30. Yet, parents expect for their child to have A’s. When their child earns D’s and F’s they want to know why. And, I just love this remark from parents “He/She does his homework.” Sooooooooooooo, homework is only 5-10% of your child’s grade. Ask yourself why your child is not able to earn a grade above D’s.

Just some food for thought to those who continously blame others rather than yourself and your child.

Shar

May 14th, 2012
11:51 am

@Already Sheared: Your endorsement of “mind the teacher” is far too all-encompassing for me. The whole goal of education is to produce independent thinkers; blind following of one person without question is antithetical to that.

I have had teachers tell my kids not to drink milk because it comes from tortured factory cows and will kill people, that “some damn fool is trying to kill us all with Amtrax”, that the most significant thing about George Washington was that he died of syphillis and that Malcolm X is the true Father Of Our Country. This, of course, pales when compared to abusive teachers like that pervert at Miramonte Elementary in Southern California.

As in any profession, there are some great teachers, more good ones, most okay ones and a sad share of bad ones with a few sociopaths thrown in. If a teacher says or does something that my child questions, that is fine with me. I believe it can in fact demonstrate that the teacher is encouraging his or her students to think independently.

However, if my child is blaming the teacher for his or her own failure or is acting in a disruptive fashion and interrupting class time for others, I as the parent need to go see the teacher, determine the problem and make good and darn sure that my child is behaving – and questioning – appropriately.

Mitch

May 14th, 2012
11:55 am

My Grand father was also a “mountain man”. Born in 1866 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of VA. He never gave up telling his Children and his forty three grand children to “EDUCATE YOURSELF”. No one can learn for you. No one can make you smart. It is up to you. His children, grand children and three or four generations after that have prospered. He had great respect for teachers and on more than one occasion I have heard him say, “teachers don’t know everything, but they know more than you do so pay attention”.

Ron F.

May 14th, 2012
11:58 am

“Our strategies for improvement can be boiled down to funding or starving the latter of these three, and ignoring the first two on the assumption that constitutional guarantees of free education mean that parents and students cannot be held accountable.”

Shar: good analysis of the triangle in education. Perhaps if we hold all three up to the same standards of performance expected of teachers, we just might see the improvement we seek. Sure would save politicians a lot of hot air, and we all know how they enjoy their politicking!

Beverly Fraud

May 14th, 2012
12:05 pm

I’m sure somebody has already decided Mpaza S. Kapembwa is a “union plant” rather than what he really is, someone with more common sense in his little finger than the overwhelming number of educrats have in their entire bodies.

RCB

May 14th, 2012
1:04 pm

@Frustrated parent
Your child refuses to do homework? What are his consequences? Must not be too bad. Like you, I too feared consequences at home if I didn’t do my work. Does he have a cell phone and get to play video games? Hang out with his friends? Consequences need to be hard and meaningful.

Hey Teacher

May 14th, 2012
1:42 pm

Great article! Part of the problem with getting students to take responsibility for his/her education is that there are no meaningful consequences for not completing work, bringing materials to class, staying on task and paying attention to the teacher. 20 years ago I could give 0’s for students who did not bring their school-issued textbook to class every day, but that is no longer the case.

AlreadySheared

May 14th, 2012
2:14 pm

@Hey Teacher:
You must be one of those poor teachers Shar refers to who is not necessarilly worthy of respect. You need to work on your ‘great’ness – THEN all your students will take the trouble to come to class prepared, and with books.

Unfortunately, ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’ nails the environment of many of today’s school systems cold. Those in charge really do mean well, and taken individually many of their decisions would seem to favor students’ well-being. Taken as a whole, however, the low standards that many systems have sunk to are a disaster for exactly the people said laxity is intended to assist – the students.

Chicagojeff

May 14th, 2012
4:54 pm

Frustrated Mom@ WHat is your role in your child’s education? I don’t understand? Are you sitting with him every night.. ensuring that he stay on task and get his work done? Are you removing television.. XBOX IPAD’s and any other extra??

Deva

May 14th, 2012
6:25 pm

This is a well written article! You spoke the truth!!!!!!! Thank you!!!!!!

I love teaching. I hate what it is becoming...

May 14th, 2012
6:39 pm

*sigh* This hits so close to home. Today we had a review for our last big unit test (which is tomorrow.) We have had class discussions on the issues, read the chapters together, filled out the book notes together, cut and pasted the vocabulary and definition matches, watched the videos, done the projects, acted out the important terms, filled in the workbook pages, done in interactive smartboard activities, worked as teams to explore concepts and present them to the class, and (supposedly) studied over the weekend. I have posted the concepts, notes, vocabulary, and key points online for parents to access. I have sent home study guides and reviewed them in class.

Yet, when I asked questions today, several of my students just stared at me with blank expressions. They could not recognize and express some of the most important concepts that we have reviewed over and over again during class, read about, written about, and discussed. I am fed up. They refuse to take any ownership of their learning or put forth even the minimum amount of effort, and it seems I care more about their learning than they do! Nor all these necessarily my weakest students. Many of them are quite capable, they simply DO NOT CARE, and as there are no consequences, they see no point in lifting a finger to help themselves. I cannot fail them – we have no letter grades. I can only “retest” them if they do not master the material, and chances are, they will do just as poorly the second time. And when they do not show mastery of the concepts, I will be blamed for not “teaching them” well enough.

Good Mother

May 14th, 2012
9:22 pm

We FIRST have to call for ADULTS to be responsible. Cheating and lying teachers everywhere have set the poorest example for students to follow. NO APS teacher has a right to criticize students. LOOK AT YOURSELVES and your own profession and what you did. SHAME!

Morning Reads Monday May 14, 2012

May 14th, 2012
10:17 pm

[...] Maureen Downey posts a column by a recent Cross Keys High School graduate who urges students to “be more responsible for their learning.” [...]