My Uninvolved Parents

I’ve seen the gamut of parental involvement during my career. Some parents couldn’t have been bothered to answer their phones. Others would lose their composure if they didn’t get daily phone calls from their children’s teachers. The range I’ve seen has made me reflect on how my parents handled my school experience, or perhaps how they didn’t handle it.

I can’t quite compare my education with that of the students I taught. I can’t compare their parent’s reactions with those of my parents. Having exclusively taught students with disabilities, I worked with parents who had legitimate reasons to be extra vigilant regarding their children’s education. My parents didn’t have such motivation.

While I was in elementary school, their involvement was at its highest. This is true with most parents. I recall my mother helping me with projects. She seemed to fret over my work more than I did. She had always been a very nervous person. For a few brief years, my schooling contributed to her nervousness. I think she might have been as concerned with what others would think of her as a mother as she was with my actual performance. My father was detached from the whole affair. He only became involved if I got into trouble. I always had the sense that he didn’t care what I did so long as the school left him alone about it.

Their involvement decreased as I got older. My mother became consumed by a job she hated and didn’t seem to have much attention to spare. My father grew more distant with each year. By high school, I no longer showed them my report cards. They didn’t think to ask, so I got away with it. Eventually, they stopped asking me much of anything about school. On the rare occasion they asked me about homework, I simply said I didn’t have any. That was good enough.

True, their lapse in attention wasn’t necessarily their choice. They were distracted. Also, I purposely obfuscated by withholding information. I could tell their attitudes and priorities regarding me had changed, though. My mother’s preoccupation when I was in high school was with my circle of friends and my dating life. She disapproved of all of my friends. Although I really didn’t get into much trouble, she was convinced my friend base was guiding me towards prison. My father viewed my education as an inconvenience. He ran his own business and would sometimes ask if I planned to go to school on a given day. He’d offer me the opportunity to skip if I could help him with his job. I don’t think this was about bonding. I think he legitimately felt that me helping him was more important than me going to school.

They did lean on me about college. Part of why my mom worked was so she could save for me to go to school. My father wasn’t going to contribute. He spent what would’ve been my tuition on his auto-racing hobby. My mother resented having to work because of this. She must have fumed when I ended up getting a grant that covered everything.

Other than urging me to enroll and helping me by filling out their portion of the FAFSA form, my parents really had no part in my college life. I lived at home to reduce costs, but they rarely asked me anything about school. When grant money dried up, my mother kicked in, though she didn’t need to kick in much. I paid for a portion of each semester. I also paid outright for summer and winter classes, books, transportation, and my share of the utilities. My total undergrad bill was barely more than $4000. Let me emphasize this was for the entire program, not just one or two semesters.

I graduated. I got a job. I started a lucrative career. I out-earned my parents and have long since paid back what would’ve been the cost of my board during college. I’ve paid back the entire amount my mother paid towards my tuition. Meanwhile, I’ve managed to function as a self-sustaining adult. I think I turned out okay despite their lack of involvement.

Was I able to do this because there is something special about me? I don’t think I’m particularly capable or talented, so probably not. Were the times just different when I was a student? They were, but not by much. Is this evidence that so-called helicopter parenting isn’t necessary? Maybe. I’m just one example. I can think of examples from my personal life of adults who can’t function without help from their parents, so this is case-by-case. I think my parent’s lack of involvement helped me develop independence, which makes me think the helicopter parents could be failing to foster this and thereby might be doing a disservice to their kids. I can’t say any of this with certainty.

How would’ve any of this been different had I been born with some kind of disability? I can’t predict how differently I would’ve developed. My guess is my mother would’ve become much more involved, but probably not in a helpful way. She wouldn’t have had the nerve to challenge the school about anything, but she would’ve been a pest with constant redundant questions. My father would’ve been every bit as detached—maybe more so. I figure the added strain would’ve been for the worse for all involved. I suppose this strain has been there for the parents of students I’ve taught, rendering comparisons moot.

My Uninvolved Parents

My Detached College Experience

Twenty years ago this week, I started my undergraduate program. At the time, I would’ve just called it college. In a word, I’d say my college experience was detached. I’m not certain anything that could be called a typical college experience exists any longer. I know mine wasn’t typical.

I enrolled reluctantly. All through high school, I had vowed I wouldn’t go to college. I had all sorts of impractical ideas about what to do instead. None were anything close to tangible by the time graduation arrived. I ended up enrolling, largely because I was in a band and had a girlfriend. These were anchors that kept me from doing something like hitchhiking around the country or joining the Peace Corps. Also, college was going to be free thanks to a grant and a scholarship. This made me feel an obligation to go.

My choice of school was based on its proximity to my parent’s home. I knew I wanted to commute, partly to cut costs, but also because I figured I’d hate living in a dorm. I tried to skip orientation because I assumed campus life would be irrelevant for me. Wow, did I resent having to actually attend orientation. It convinced me I wanted to stay far away from campus.

I had no idea what I would study. I entered undeclared. My plan (if one could call it a plan) was to take classes until I had enough credits to apply for a supervisory position with the agency that employed me part time. At no point during my first or even during most of my second year did I think, “Hey, I’ll become a teacher.” I wasn’t even taking the idea of finishing seriously.

I didn’t really go to college. I took classes during the day. I drove from home every day, took my classes, and then went to my part time job. I spent little time on campus. I met few people. To my annoyance, I had to linger around campus on days when I had large gaps between my classes. Some days I passed this time sleeping in my car rather than engaging anything or anyone. It was a lonely time, by my design.

The detached feeling lasted throughout my time in college. I only continued attending because classes continued to be free (or at least cheap). I thought I should take advantage of that. Eventually, I reached a crossroads at which I had to select a major. This seemed like a juncture at which I could quit, but I figured I had invested enough time that I might as well finish. My choice of education as a major reflected my desire to pick something marketable that would validate the time I’d spent. I ended up strongly disliking my coursework. I wandered through the program, but felt tempted to quit even as I approached graduation. I didn’t bother attending the ceremony, choosing to work that day instead.

I guess my poor attitude shaped my experience. At no point was I working towards something I felt driven to do. If I exerted an effort, it was because the free money I received made me feel obligated to try. My parents were never particularly interested. I slept in their house during college, but I didn’t see them often. They were distracted with their lives and paid little mind to mine. Throughout my experience, college remained this intrusive chore I dealt with during the day.

This attitude continued in my Master’s program. I resented having to do it. I only went through with it because of the state requirement for certification (and the pay bump). Going to school while working full time wore at my patience. Sometime midway through the program, I began calculating the most minimal amount of work I needed to do to maintain a high enough GPA to get the degree and certification.

What I see now is lots of students have detached experiences like mine. I think these experiences result in part from the proliferation of online course, satellite campuses, and non-traditional graduation paths. With decentralized experiences, I wonder how connected students feel and how this affects the value they get from their education. They might feel their education is a service for which they’re paying rather than an opportunity to be part of a school community. What will this mean for those seeking professional licensure of some kind?

I might be overthinking the matter. My lousy attitude didn’t stop me. Maybe their detachment won’t be a problem for them. Twenty years from now, they might be just fine (or in debt with nothing to show for their educational odyssey).

My Detached College Experience

Learned Cynicism and Altered Expectations

Some reasonable predictions can be made about outcomes for students. In special education, children with the most severe disabilities might have clear destinies before they start school. For higher functioning children, estimations remain possible, but they can be more difficult and thereby are dangerously suspect. Where students are at the end of high school might not be a good indication of where they have the potential to go. Just because they don’t appear prepared for adult life doesn’t mean they won’t figure it out. I should know.

Throughout high school, I slacked with the worst of them. Sometime during tenth grade, I decided I was only going to do as much work as I could get done during the school day (and only if I felt like it). I ignored major assignments. I drew during class instead of taking notes. I sat quietly, sometimes just staring back at teachers who had the nerve to call on me.

I wasn’t remarkable for anything positive in high school. If teachers noticed me, they noticed an unmotivated kid who wore the same clothing every day. Some would know me as that kid who got caught stealing art supplies (I almost got away with it, too). Others might know me as that kid who asked other kids for the food they were going to throw away at lunch (I didn’t like to see food get wasted). Still others might know me as that kid who penned an essay about shooting a president to get in an encyclopedia (my parents got a call over that one). None of these were good reasons to be noticed or remembered.

I can imagine what my teachers might have said about me, had they noticed me enough to comment. I’m guessing they would’ve described me a waste of potential. They might have remarked about me being dirty and gross. My guess is they didn’t look at me as someone who would someday teach for a living. I wouldn’t have guessed this, either.

Teachers get the opportunity to either relive or correct the mistakes their teachers made. Often, they don’t realize they’re reliving these mistakes until they’ve made a few. I hoped I’d be able to avoid this trap, but I fell for it. Presented with the chance to pass judgment about student potential, I did so repeatedly. I’ll defend myself somewhat. Most of the students I taught had disabilities that would act as definite limitations. I based my predictions on statistical likelihoods. This had some practical merit, but also it was cold and foreclosing.

Experience shaped my perspective, but it had a nasty hand in shaping expectations. Years of watching students flounder after graduation undermined my ability to have hope for more positive outcomes. I worked to prepare students as much as possible for outcomes that seemed appropriate. My sin was letting preconceptions dictate what these outcomes would be. In doing this, I might have had the exact wrong kind of influence.

True, many of these students did have genuine limitations that set what outcomes would be available. I’ve mentioned on this blog the importance channeling transition efforts towards realistic outcomes. I did this. I stand by the decision to work with families to find the best possible transition plan within a student’s reach. I still have to wonder if I might have aimed too low with some students. Instinct tells me I more frequently aimed too high. My instincts might have been warped by cynicism.

I was looking at where students were as they were ready to exit. What isn’t certain when a student is graduating is what that student will be capable of doing three, five, or even ten years later. Many people aren’t ready for adulthood in their late teens or early twenties. Some don’t hit their stride until their late twenties or early thirties. Late blooming has become somewhat of a function of economic circumstances. Even two decades ago, I was scarcely ready for adulthood. I fumbled through college and didn’t establish anything solid for myself until my mid twenties. Any snapshot of me along the way would have revealed a guy who appeared to be somewhat of a mess (and I didn’t have a disability).

My concept of success might have been too narrow as well. Many people in the education business have an unfair tendency to think of post-secondary education and eventual degree attainment as the threshold of success. Having a job that allows for financial independence becomes synonymous with having “made it.” For many students with disabilities, getting any kind of job might be the pinnacle of success. While this might seem a bit detached and impractical, relative contentment probably should be the ultimate benchmark. If a person with a disability works ten hours per week at minimum wage but feels good about the work and about life in general, perhaps that should be enough.

Benefit of the doubt is crucial. Yes, students with disabilities need to work towards practical outcomes and teachers will have an important role in determining what these will be. However, harboring cynicism about student prospects could subtly influence a teacher’s efforts. Even if it doesn’t affect practice, a preconception that students in special education have no chance at any echelon of success can make the day-to-day of the job more grueling than it needs to be. Students might seem unready for adult life when teachers finish with them. That doesn’t mean these students will never figure out a way to thrive that works for their lives. The path to adulthood has become longer and more convoluted. Throwing a disability into this path compounds the complexity. Special educators need to apply their differenciated thinking to expectations. I had trouble with this, but I came around. Many of us need some time to come around.

Learned Cynicism and Altered Expectations

Standardized Testing, Corporate Influence, and Relative Sanity

I’m a veteran test taker. This doesn’t make me special. Most adults who have pursued some kind of professional licensure share my veteran status. Actually, most adults who have attended any kind of school are veterans like me. I don’t know how standardized tests have impacted the lives of others. I do know that I’ve survived the tests I’ve taken with little scarring. Corporate interests in education have been apparent all along, but they haven’t claimed me as a casualty.

My test taking career began sometime early in elementary school. Each year, I took some kind of standardized test in addition to whatever tests and quizzes my teachers threw at me. I remember taking commercial (corporation-made) tests like the Iowa and the TerraNova enough times to recognize the similar phrasing of questions from year to year. In high school, I took fewer standardized tests. However, the ones I had to take became more complicated. I was scheduled to take the PSSA, but I blew it off (see my post about this). I couldn’t blow off the SAT, which I took without having taken the PSAT or having done one minute of preparation (and I did just fine).

It didn’t stop when I graduated. To get a teaching job after college, I had to take several of the Praxis examinations developed by ETS. To get into graduate school, I had to take the GRE. Several years later, I had to take another Praxis test to get an English certification. I wasn’t delighted to take these tests, primarily because I had to pay for the privilege of taking them. What I didn’t do was throw a fit over each one. They were steps on the way to something else. I took each test and moved on with my life. I didn’t mourn the time I lost taking them. I didn’t need counseling afterwards.

I might be an unusual case. Over the years, I’ve come to think standardized tests are almost fun. I took the psychology GRE just to see how well I’d do. I took a practice version of the MAT for pure amusement. I did the same with the LSAT. Whenever I’ve administered the PSSA or similar assessments to students, I’ve tried a few sections on my own just to get a sense of each test. Metrics interest me. I’ve found the healthy approach to coping with tests is to regard them as games. Perhaps some people can’t do this and I shouldn’t compare my experience with theirs.

Reading about people having aneurysms over standardized testing doesn’t surprise me. I see how such testing appears to be the worst plague to have ever befallen schools. Still, I’m not convinced they’re the death of education, nor am I convinced they’re destroying the dreams of children. Assessments can help educational progress when they’re designed and implemented wisely. I’ll agree that much of what currently is happening with testing in schools isn’t productive and is being done for questionable, possibly nefarious reasons. I don’t completely agree that these tests are crippling students, though. I’d venture to say other elements of contemporary American living are doing more harm than tests (staring at glowing screens all day and being under constant supervision come to mind). Dare I suggest kids and parents are becoming more sensitive as testing is becoming more ubiquitous. Perhaps I’m being callous or showing my age, but I happen to think if test taking is proving to be too much for kids, adult life is going to shred them.

I’ve lived through a few decades of testing. Depending on what I decide to do with myself in the coming years, I might have more tests to take. I don’t really want to give more money to educational conglomerates, but I’ll do it if I have to and I’ll be okay. In spirit, I support the backlash against the perceived corporate hijacking of education. What grounds me is the realization that this hijacking isn’t new. Corporate interests in education have existed for as long as schools have been purchasing commercial textbooks. The infrastructure of schools—from busses to buildings—is designed and sold by corporations. The technology used in classrooms isn’t designed by family-owned businesses. How many teachers buy classroom supplies at Wal-Mart or Office Max? Who makes those supplies?

Outside of schools, everything in our lives is manufactured and distributed by corporations. Our precious phones and the electricity that powers them, the Starbucks lattes rotting inside us, and the mortgages over which we fret are all brought to us by corporations. Suddenly, everyone seems to have realized corporate interests reach into schools and now everyone is bothered by it. I get that these interests affect more than the tests students take, just as I get that the reach of corporate-sponsored education reform has extended in recent years. I don’t necessarily like it, but I guess it doesn’t scare me as much as it does some people. Maybe I’m naïve.

Ideally, I’d like to escape much of this artificiality that ensnares us all. At the same time, I think standardized tests might be a bit less toxic than some of the other corporate intrusions in our lives. True, the current push to rely on tests seems to have motivations that don’t have to do with helping children develop as learners. I’m all for a more sensible approach to assessment. I still have to scratch my head somewhat at those who are frothing in anger over the damage these tests are doing. The tests aren’t good, but they aren’t exactly cyanide. The snack food in many kitchens across America might be more harmful. I’m not suggesting testing should continue unchecked, but the outrage feels overdone to a standardized testing veteran like me.

Standardized Testing, Corporate Influence, and Relative Sanity

Psychological Testing For Students With ID (Repost from Kokuanetwork.com)

Below is an article I wrote for kokuanetwork.com about the importance of IQ scores for students with intellectual disabilities who are on the cusp of exiting school. Visit Kokua Network to find resources for parents of children with special needs.

http://kokuanetwork.com/testingforstudentswithid/

Psychological Testing For Students With ID (Repost from Kokuanetwork.com)

Opting Out in 1994

A recent conversation reminded me that I had been an early entrant in the opt-out movement. Actually, several of my friends and I were nearly two decades ahead of today’s subscribers. Our motivations weren’t especially noble. Our actions had limited reach. Regardless, I’ll proudly claim that we opted out before anyone was using the expression.

I was a high school junior in 1994. My classmates and I were one of the first cohorts to take the 11th grade PSSA in Pennsylvania. Our teachers didn’t do much to prepare us for the tests beyond telling us we had to take them. We were close to indifferent. Getting out of class seemed like an acceptable trade, so we had that. I can’t speak for the parents of my friends, but I know my parents had little to no interest. They probably weren’t aware.

Before the testing window began, we found out the tests wouldn’t affect our credits or academic standing in any way. Instead, the scores would be used to rate the school’s performance. Telling us that was a mistake. We had no reason to care about the tests if they had no bearing on us. Additionally, the idea of being able to make our school look bad by purposely tanking the tests seemed fun.

My friends and I weren’t notorious troublemakers, but we did enjoy subversion for its own sake. Most of us were relatively capable students, but none of us were especially ambitious. Out of sheer laziness, I’m guessing a few of us would’ve given up on the tests about halfway through. Simply skipping school on the testing dates would’ve been the easiest route, but it wouldn’t have worked because make-up dates were prescheduled. The school insisted on us taking the tests. We insisted on not playing along. Worse than that, we insisted on giving the school a black eye out of immature, angsty spite.

We made a pact. Each of us would mark “B” for every answer without reading anything and immediately turn in the test booklet. We’d be taking the test in a cafeteria, so we’d see if anyone balked. Shame is a powerful motivator, although we didn’t need it. On the first testing date, I watched my friends finish in mere minutes, close their books, and hand the tests to the proctors. I felt proud as I did the same with mine. The proctors were angry, but they had little recourse. I put my head down and took a nap with the remaining time. My future glowed.

This wasn’t intended to make a statement. We went through with it because we were lazy and because we thought defiance was entertaining. I have no idea what impact our action (or lack of action) had on the school. I don’t think any of us truly cared if we made a negative impact. We were just being jerks because we liked being jerks.

Looking back, we probably could’ve encouraged more students to join us. We only talked about it within our group. The message would’ve been easy to spread via word of mouth or even a few strategically-placed posters. True to our nature, we didn’t put much effort into our threadbare cause.

Thinking about this makes me wonder how quickly a student-led opt-out movement could spread today. Students still don’t like to take tests. Teenagers in particular like to do what their friends are doing. I’m guessing a test protest could spread nationally in a matter of days. The movement could be called “The Straight-A Challenge.” Teenagers love social media challenges. This one would encourage them to mark “A” for every answer on whatever statewide standardized tests their schools make them take. Yes, my friends and I marked “B,” but “The Straight-B Challenge” isn’t as catchy. I’m not certain the challenge would need to have any kind of social or political slant. I think kids would buy in just the way my friends and I did. For all I know, kids might already be doing something like this.

Opting out was fun when I did it twenty-one years ago. Notions of tests being harmful to child development or counterproductive to learning outcomes meant nothing to me at the time. I had no interest in taking a test that had nothing to do with me. At the same time, I thought poisoning the school’s results would be good for a laugh. I’m thinking schools today are filled with kids who would agree. I’m not advocating for any of them to go through with it, but I might smirk to myself if any of them would.

Opting Out in 1994

A Guide To Special Education Documents (Repost From KokuaNetwork.com)

Below is an article about understanding special education documents I wrote for kokuanetwork.com. Visit Kokua Network to find resources for parents of children with special needs.

http://kokuanetwork.com/specialeducationdocuments/

A Guide To Special Education Documents (Repost From KokuaNetwork.com)