Sick of the Rim-Sitters. . .

In response to my post on who is responsible for student learning, Miller wrote:

I go to the doctor and she tells me to take a medication to get better. I don’t follow her instructions and get worse. Should I sue her? Is it her fault? Has she committed malpractice? According to YOU she did.

I’ve actually got lots of problems with the doctor/teacher analogy, Miller. While it may seem like a logical comparison because doctors suggest plans of action to patients who can choose to follow directions or ignore advice, that’s where the similarities stop. 

Perhaps most importantly, you’re suggesting that students have the same ability to make reasoned decisions as adults. Rick Wormeli—author, educational consultant and fellow TLNer—shaped my thinking on this issue a few months back in a conversation we were having about holding students accountable for meeting deadlines for assignments.  Here’s some of what he said: 

"We are not teaching adults, we’re teaching youth. The morphing humans we teach do not have adult-level competencies yet. To expect them to have their entire lives so together as to make everything work out in a timely manner is inappropriate. Students are messy as they grow, often taking 3 steps forward for every two steps backward.

The examples given for adults meeting deadlines such as working 12 or more hours in a day to meet a contract deadline, etc., are possible because these workers are adults. They have control over their lives, they know their bodies, they can re-arrange other things in their lives, and they can set aside some recovery time after the task is completed.

Our students have none of these options. They really can’t re-arrange everything else in their lives, they can’t stay until 10:00 at night at their school to work on things, skip out on taking care of their younger siblings if the parents are working evenings, or argue with the football coach to skip the state championship because they need to finish their essay on how cuneiform writing dramatically impacted the Fertile Crescent.

Students’ physiology is changing which makes it hard for students to "read" their bodies. They can’t go without sleep, and take time afterwards to recover from the long days. They are so egocentric in the now of the moment that they can rarely task analyze so well as to plan appropriately for how long something will take to complete, especially if there are many somethings…

Our students are imperfect beings, constantly mixing priorities, dealing with temptations, and often making the wrong decisions…Our commission is to teach so that students learn, not just present curriculum and blindly hold students accountable for it.

The idea that each of our students learns at the same pace as everyone else goes against all we know about human psychology and the way the mind learns….We do a lot more for students by extending to them a compassionate ladder with which to climb from the hole they’ve dug themselves than we do by yelling at them from the hole’s rim, "Just sit down there and try to become a better person while the rest of the world passes you by."

I guess I just can’t understand the rim-sitters in our schools. Do they doubt their own ability to educate?  Are they too lazy to change? What satisfaction do they take in seeing any student—no matter how belligerent or irresponsible—fail? Is additional training necessary to help them fill in ability gaps that have lingered for years?

And I’m completely frustrated by our inability to hold rim-sitters accountable for their actions. Instead, we just turn our backs and pretend like we don’t know what’s going on in their rooms. We’re willing to fight when our own children get assigned to their classrooms but we do nothing to protect other people’s kids from the consequences of unprofessional practice. 

If this were medicine, rim-sitters would be called before a review board and lose their license. 

In education, they get a salary-step increase for experience. 

Does that bother anyone besides me?

18 thoughts on “Sick of the Rim-Sitters. . .

  1. graycie

    Good teachers don’t ask their students to make adult efforts or control adult things. Good teachers hold kids to the responsibilities they can control and to efforts they can make. Often this involves adjustments for individual circumstances.
    I’m not at all sure that your extreme scenario is accurate. I also don’t think that either a totally hard-nosed or super-softy approach is good for kids.

  2. MTheads

    Of course, education is a partnership between the schools and the families. But, until recently, schools were quite content to run everything, make all the decisions, and advise parents to not interfere in the teachers’ jobs.
    Now that parents are demanding better service and more choices, it’s only fair that schools expect more parental participation. I think we’re in a transitionary period right now, trying to figure out the exact role of all participants. Of course, the problem is really about what to do with the students who do not have parents who will become active in their education.

  3. Mike

    Dear Roger:
    Indeed. Thanks for the clarification. May I provide just one more?
    By continuous effort toward learning, I mean merely that I see kids every day, and when they’re in my class, I expect them to focus and work on learning. I’m not suggesting a state of perpetual motion. I also teach kids that learning to concentrate and focus their attention is a life long process, one that we work on every day.
    It’s also been my experience that adminstrators, always on the lookout to impose the latest “change the face of education and society” fad, are more than willing to blame teachers when their fads don’t work, which is part and parcel of the “if a child isn’t learning, it’s your fault” mindset. Perhaps it is, perhaps it isn’t. Figuring out reality takes experience, skill, actual effort and common sense, qualities in short supply in politicians and educrats.
    As you say, it’s all too easy to say that teachers are absolutely and totally responsible for student learning, but that doesn’t make up down, black white or night day. Reality rears its ugly head, at least for teachers.

  4. Roger Sweeny

    I called you a hardass because I was being a smartass.
    I too try to get my students to take some responsibility and make some effort. I just don’t expect to always succeed. I was over-reacting to your statement, “Actually putting forth real and continuous effort toward learning would seem a pretty good example of the kind of responsibility that it is reasonable to expect of children.” Continuous (as in never stopping)? No, that’s not reasonable.
    You are right that I don’t believe “that better teachers can “make” difficult kids responsible and stop their belligerance.” But a lot of people in this business (many of them involved in ed. school/professional development part of it) seem to be telling me that, that sufficient “growth as a professional” will indeed bring me to that promised land.
    “Every child can learn” too easily morphs into, “If a child isn’t learning, it’s your fault.”

  5. Miller Smith

    Yet another real world situation…
    La Raza is very upset that hispanic students are required to pass tests to graduate. Guess what they did? They told the hispanic communities to tell the children to write their names on the tests and do nothing else.
    Huge numbers of students did just that. When the test scores came in, teachers with high numbers of hispanic students who answered nothing were told they were BAD teachers and were at risk of losing their jobs.
    I have even more real world examples.

  6. Miller Smith

    Yet another real world situation…
    La Raza is very upset that hispanic students are required to pass tests to graduate. Guess what they did? They told the hispanic communities to tell the children to write their names on the tests and do nothing else.
    Huge numbers of students did just that. When the test scores came in, teachers with high numbers of hispanic students who answered nothing were told they were BAD teachers and were at risk of losing their jobs.
    I have even more real world examples.

  7. Mike

    Dear Roger:
    Indeed, I expect students to put forth real and continuous effort toward learning, and in that way to learn and display responsibility. I believe a reasonable reading of my comments, explicit and implied, would also indicate that I clearly understand that, being children, they will not all live up to that, or any other particular standard , and that as teachers, we all need to understand and effectively deal with that fact of life.
    If expecting some responsibility from students and parents makes me a “hardass,” I suppose I’ll have to plead guilty as charged. However, I would certainly hope that expecting responsibility for learning from students and their parents is not a rare thing among teachers. Should it be, we’re all in trouble, no?
    I hope you’re engaging in satire when you suggest that better teachers can “make” difficult kids responsible and stop their belligerance. In reality, we can encourage them, we can live the ideals we want them to follow, we can engage in lawful discipline, but ultimately, we can’t make any child do what they refuse to do, and some will absolutely choose to be belligerant and irresponsible no matter what we do and no matter the skill and character of their teachers. If this isn’t true and we can “make” kids do as you suggest, please provide details about this process. I’m open to learning.
    And the cloud I’ve been living on? Texas. We still do responsibility down here.

  8. Miller Smith

    How about a real world situation?
    I get a $3500 bonus if 85% or more of my students pass the AP Chemistry exam with a 3 or better. The students are not required to take the exam. I convince most of them to sign up for the exam with the promise that I would do all I can to make sure they pass with a 3 or better. The school system pays for the cost of the exam.
    Two months before the exam date two of my students decide they want to spend more time on other AP classes (“Nothing personal Mr. Smith, I’ve just decided I would rather follow a biology type career.”) They remain in the class with the class with the rational that AP Chem looks good on their transcript even if they don’t take the exam.
    The student’s decision means that it is impossible for 85% of my students will pass the exam with a 3 or better. I have no chance at the $3500 now DUE SOLELY TO THEIR DECISION.
    Do I have a legal cause of action against the students and their parents?
    I have lots more real world examples.

  9. Roger Sweeny

    What satisfaction do they take in seeing any student—no matter how belligerent or irresponsible—fail?
    A very mixed satisfaction–but satisfaction nevertheless. The unmixed part is the same satisfaction that I get when I see a hardworking and co-operative student succeed.
    Of course, if I were a better teacher, I would be able to make them responsible, and stop their belligerence, no matter how bad they start out. But I’m not.
    At least I’m not as much of a hardass as commenter Mike, “Actually putting forth real and continuous effort toward learning would seem a pretty good example of the kind of responsibility that it is reasonable to expect of children.” What cloud has he been living on?
    So here’s a suggestion: take my irresponsible and belligerent students and give them to someone who can reach them and motivate them. Then pay that person $20,000 or so more than me.
    Of course, there would have to be some proof that the kids had actually learned and not just spent 180 days in a special classroom.

  10. Renee Moore

    Great post, Bill, and very thought-provoking responses.
    Perhaps all students could be more responsible learners if we didn’t do such a good job of quenching their natural curiosity and training them to passively respond rather than think.
    As for the rim-sitters, a more effective evaluation system (than what exists in most schools currently) would be able to separate those teachers who are frustrated and in need of support, from those who are just marking time at their students’ expense.

  11. Mike

    Dear Ariel:
    I agree. We must do our best for each student, not just merely present “the lesson” and consider our work done. However, you’re among the first people I’ve ever seen actually put into print the idea of substantial student/parental responsibility. Perhaps, as you say, no one denies that, but if so, it’s hard to understand why so few are willing to say it.

  12. Ariel

    Mike, ultimately, students and parents do possess great responsibility for students’ learning and where it takes them. I doubt anyone denies that. The question at hand is this: Given that not all parents are equally prepared or committed to helping their children with their education, and given that not all students enter the same teacher’s classroom with the same range of experiences, developmental stage, or skill level, is it professionally sound for a teacher to present the same content to each student in the same way, at the same time, and then watch how the chips fall for each student, evaluate, and call it a day when a third of the class fails? Or is it best practice, instead, for the teacher to figure out what the students’ learning needs are and then find ways to serve them? The latter yields much better results, but is much more time consuming and challenging. The “rim sitters” are those who are not able or willing to put in the time and thought to appropriately address the needs of every student. They hide behind the fact that they are “covering the material.” And–if all students learned the same way and had identical experiences coming in–that might be adequate. But research shows that is not the case.
    Which brings me to the pay issue. I understand why some capable teachers sit on the rim, though I am not one of them. The job simply doesn’t pay us for the time it takes to create and maintain programs that serve the diversity of needs in our classrooms. It also doesn’t support us in learning how to do this.
    The point is, finally, that all children can learn–and will do so happily–even those who try to evade responsibility for their own learning, or don’t seem to understand why it’s important in the first place. But it takes a lot more than a lesson plan and a 45 minute teaching period to make that happen.

  13. Mike

    Hmm. Miller’s medical analogy, as Bill suggested, is apt in that it points out the central dynamic in this situation: Professionals–doctors and teachers–can make suggestions, but consumers–patients and students–are, for the most part, free to ignore those suggestions. In both cases, the professionals have fully discharged their responsibilities and it is then up to the consumer to do their part. Should they refuse or fail to do their part to help themselves, the professionals cannot rationally or responsibily be held accountable.
    Rick Wormeli’s comments are interesting, as far as they go, but shouldn’t we all consider that kind of knowledge–that kids are different than adults, irresponsible or responsible–to be pretty much bare minimum intellectual ammunition for any competent teacher? It’s hardly a revelation. It may well be valuable to reiterate such things from time to time as a reminder/reinforcer, but it’s not exactly tablets coming down from the mountain in terms of changing policy. In fact, I’m sure that Mr. Wormeli probably observed elsewhere that the fact that kids are not responsible adults does not absolve them from accepting and discharging some responsibilities–after all, learning to do that is part of the education process–and that it is the proper role of parents to also know that kids aren’t adults and to see that the kids do what they aren’t mature and developed enough to know is good and necessary for them. Actually putting forth real and continuous effort toward learning would seem a pretty good example of the kind of responsibility that it is reasonable to expect of children.
    It seems that this portion of the thread has moved away from the issues of teacher/student/parent responsibility for learning and into issues of merit pay and supervision. Because teachers generally have no supervisory responsibility or power, the point is essentially moot, particularly if we’re going to stick to the original topic. If less than effective teachers are allowed to remain in a given school, that’s a supervisory problem, is it not?
    And the issue of teachers receiving more pay each year just for “hang[ing] in there another year” is perhaps a little simplistic. Certainly we should be rewarding excellence, but not everyone can be excellent (Lake Woebegon remains fictional), and don’t those who aren’t excellent need their salaries to keep up with inflation, perhaps even get a bit ahead? Don’t we have an interest in rewarding many years of faithful, dedicated, if not consistently outstanding, service to our schools and communities? Is experience, which can only be gained through years of effort, of no value?
    Pay and supervision are closely intertwined. Should we not be able to believe that each teacher whose contract was renewed for the new year has met the mimimum performance requirements for renewal and that their teaching performance is acceptable if not outstanding? Should they not be worthy of a step increase they were promised for their continued service? Should cost of living increases be held hostage to a merit pay scheme? Absent such rewards for longevity–which should indicate acceptable performance–who would wish to become a teacher in the first place?
    I’m not suggesting that merit pay of some sort might not be useful or wise, but we should not suggest that the rewards due us for many years of faithful service should be thereby obliterated. With merit pay, as with much else in education, the devil’s in the details.
    And I’m still waiting for a number of folks to admit, in even the smallest way, that students and parents bear even the tiniest burden of responsibility for student learning. Why does that continue to be so hard?

  14. Marsha

    I am right there with you in how I feel about rim-sitters. I’d bet there are as many reasons for this behavior as there are sitters.
    To me your second point…that our silence about these kinds of people is most troubling to me. Teachers point at adminstrators and administrators point at the unions…and these teachers continue on.
    I doubt that our teaching culture can “go after” these people…it’s just not in the profession’s nature. But if we were to design a system of pay that rewards competence and excellence….hopefully the rim-sitters will get sick of getting base pay only and will leave. The pay system doesn’t do a thing right now to encourage excellence. It only rewards those who hang in there another year. How can that be a positive thing?

  15. Bob

    One person’s rim sitter is another person’s loyal colleague, friendly flame thrower, etc. Student learning rates matter to me before concerns for variations in schools about teachers’ opinions, labels, pay schedules, rules of censorship, and emotions. I’ll raise higher on my priority list any of these when accumuated data show how they influence student learning. That’s likely (that’s a probability statement, not a waffle) the way it is for most school administrators. (Anyway, I think Miller was pulling readers’ chains.)

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