An update on “Please don’t call my mom”

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The post I made in reaction to seeing the film “Precious” and talking to my students about what happens when a teacher calls home has gotten a lot of attention.

Today I was a guest on the Brian Lehrer show on WNYC radio to discuss the post and to get feedback from his listeners.

Thirty years ago I worked in radio doing a talk show very similar to Mr. Lehrer’s so being on air was not that big a deal, though it did feel a bit odd being on the other side of the table from the host.

A lot of people called into the show and others commented online. You can hear the broadcast and read the comments here.

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3 Responses to An update on “Please don’t call my mom”

  1. DrMarty says:

    Thanks for the link. I just discovered this blog. What a find.

  2. Sam says:

    I’ve been following your blog since Phill sent out the link when it first started, and I’m duly impressed. You’ve been consistent, honest, insightful, and your readership has clearly expanded exponentially.

    As a teacher, I also struggled with what to do about calling a parent who I suspected of being abusive. No matter what my approach, if my call was in reaction to a negative occurrence in the classroom, the call did not often result in any improvement in the student’s classroom behavior.

    If I’m honest with myself, I think that calls home were partly just a means for me to exert my own power. It was the one thing I could do to get back at a student. I had to show that I had some control. It’s difficult to make the distinction, sometimes, between doing what’s best for an individual child and what we think we need to do to show that we are in charge of the classroom. They’re not always the same.

    I also don’t see anything in your post to suggest that you have the same struggle. I don’t think all teachers do, but I think that plenty do. I commented once before about the importance of not taking things personally with students. There are very mature and secure teachers who can avoid that pitfall, and I suspect that you’re one of them.

    I listened to the show, and I was disturbed by the 6th grade teacher who went on and on about the protocols she follows for calling home. None of them seemed designed to help students and there was no evidence that they were effective, only that they protected her. IMO it reflected very much an old-school, bunker-style teacher mentality.

    I also want to say that in 3 years teaching in NYC I never went over the discipline code with my students. I student taught with a social studies teacher who actually spent a week going through it with his social studies class. So I guess there’s a range in terms of what people actually do.

    And I never hesitated to call with a positive comment. I think the good of those calls far outweighed the bad, if there was any.

    I also read the comments, and I agree that there is something disturbing about all of this stemming from a viewing of Precious. It’s unfortunate that some black people, like the listener who wrote a comment, would be concerned that white people would make blanket assumptions about blacks by watching Precious. (Some might.) It’s disturbing that some people, as Christopher Orr on TNR wrote in his review, assume that Precious is based on a true story. It’s upsetting that one reader–quite rightly–felt compelled to point out that abuse happens in the suburbs, too. I guess this is some of what makes Precious a controversial movie. It deals in the extremes.

    • Deven Black says:

      Thank you, Sam, for your thoughtful and thorough comment and for the kind words.

      I do struggle with the choices between doing what the rules say I must and doing what I think is best for the child. As a special education teacher I concentrate on the individual abilities, needs, motivations and behaviors of my students. I do my best to identify the factors that are standing in the way of their success and remove or modify the ones I have some control over. Classroom management has never been one of my major concerns not because I don’t care how students behave, but because I focus more on the individuals as individuals first, then members of a class.

      I am also cognizant that what I or others see as misbehavior is often some kind of communication that the lesson, task or whatever is too challenging, not challenging enough or otherwise off-putting. Would it be better for the student to articulate that in words? Absolutely, but my students don’t often have the vocabulary necessary and acting out has been successful in getting a reaction that often gets the student off the immediate hook.

      What I did not write initially or in the follow-up, but should have, is that I do have students who beg me to call their parents to tell them they are behaving (oddly not when they do a task well). Frequently those requests come from students who ask after a very brief period of acceptable behavior. In those cases I do try to use the possibility of a call as leverage; ‘behave the rest of the period and I’ll make that call.’ I do this even though it reeks of extortion and manipulation because while I dislike treating my students that way because it in often the easiest and sometimes the best way to have a student try something at which he or she is likely to succeed.

      I, too, was disturbed by the tone and content of the 6th grade teacher’s call, but considering the current climate of distrust, suspicion, apprehension and other negatives, I understand the teacher’s determination that she needs to protect herself by precisely following procedures.

      The movie Precious was not the subject of the original post, it was merely the stimulus for the discussions with my students that alarmed me. I wrote the original post and almost all my other posts because the subjects discussed are ones that other teachers, parents or citizens face. Precious could have been of a different race, different income group and rural and it would not change the issue of parental abuse portrayed in the film. The students I discussed the film with included blacks, hispanics, southeast Asians and a student from the middle east because those are the students I teach, but I know from experiences gathered over decades in a variety of settings that the problems I confront in my classroom are not unique in location, gender, race, income or time. It is this recognition that students who are physically, emotionally or sexually abused are all around that makes the film so powerful that is resonates in everyone who deals with other people’s children.

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