Have Your Lawyer Call My Lawyer


How many times in a day does a teacher hear the word "accommodate" and all its variations?  One loses count.  In a profession full of doublespeak buzzwords, this is one of the biggest.  Every problem can be solved by an "accommodation".  What teachers discover early on is that "accommodate" is often a code word for more work for the teacher, less work for the student and/or more convenience for the parents.  You learn real quick in conferences to look out when they start throwing the A-word around. Many accommodations are legitimate and may be required by law. Others are less so but are done to help with a specific problem.  Sometimes, though, you get to the point where you can't accommodate anything else unless you just exempt the student from everything.  This is a classic case of that and was my first major crisis as a teacher.

I entered teaching halfway through the school year as a long term sub. The regular teacher, who was in her second year of teaching, was out on maternity leave.  So I'm the new guy, the year is half over and I couldn't have been more different in style than the regular teacher, who was one of those young, bubbly cheer leader types.  She was very good though.  I inherited a good classroom with solid routines and continued many of them.

I also inherited a situation that they never taught us in teacher training.

My last hour (7th) was an 8th grade math class.  After about two weeks, I realized there was a female student on the rolls in that class who I had never seen and had never gotten any work from.  I asked one of my homeroom students about it and she told me that this missing student went to ice skating lessons every day.

So I checked up on it and sure enough, the parents had worked out a deal with the school to excuse her from 7th hour every day to go to private skating lessons.  It seems they were grooming her for the Olympics and beyond.  So Little Miss Sonja Henie was missing every math class. The original deal was that the parents would hire a tutor and their daughter would be expected to complete all work and come in before school to take tests and quizzes.  That had not happened.  She was cut a huge amount of slack by my well-meaning predecessor, who undoubtedly had been brainwashed in college that it was her sacred duty to "accommodate" everything.   Unfortunately, I had not been so accommodating. Going into the midterm reports, she had a solid F.

I made the requisite notifications and there was hell to pay.  The angry parents demanded an immediate conference with everybody from the superintendent on down to li'l ole me.  We scheduled one for after school a couple days later with me, the homeroom teacher and the assistant principal, who briefed me on what to expect.  She warned me that these parents were "feisty" and used to getting their way.  Their daughter had been a student there since kindergarten and these parents had blustered and buffaloed every teacher along the way. They had also cowed the principal, who was a true believer in accommodation anyway. 

At the meeting, the parents unloaded.  This was an outrage.  Unacceptable.  A poor reflection on the school.  They know the superintendent.  Maybe they should just move their daughter to a private school. Things had been going well for months.  Why the break down now?

I think the assistant principal would have rather I not talked but we got to the point where I had to speak up.

To paraphrase a bit, I told the parents "I'm new here.  I would have never signed off on this plan to begin with.  Your daughter isn't doing the work.  Her grade book entries are blank.  She has a zero since I've been here.  This thing has gotten away from everyone.  What this plan has morphed into is the school exempting your daughter from all academic requirements in my class and I can't support it.  Nor will I give private classes before school every day.  There's simply too much going on.  She's a very capable student and she's got to turn in the work and take the tests. There are limits to what we can accommodate." 

Maybe it was my Marine Corps persona, but the parents just sat there.  Then the mom sniffed " I think we may have to consult our attorney on this."

Well, I was newly divorced and feeling a bit feisty myself at that point.  As the assistant principal started to placate the parents,  I took out my wallet and got one of my divorce attorney's business cards.  I gave it to the mom and said "If that's the way you want to handle it, have your lawyer call my lawyer. And if she were here right now, she would tell me not to say another word.  My participation in this meeting is over."  And I got up and walked out.

Five minutes later, the assistant principal walked into my classroom and shut the door.  I figured I better start packing up.  She came up to the desk and started laughing. "That was great.  I've been waiting years for someone to put those people in their place.  They were dumbfounded.  They had no idea what to do.  They just left without saying a word."

The story has a happy ending.  The mom called me the next day and apologized.  They hired a tutor who met with their daughter before school every day and we all worked out a schedule that got everything done. The daughter ended up with a B and I ended up with the job permanently when my predecessor decided to be a stay-at-home mom.

Now there is a learning point to be made here.  Some parents are bullies.  And like all bullies, they will bluff and bluster and abuse until someone stands up to them.  That is part of the art of teaching - knowing the best way to deal with the infinite personalities that you come in contact with.  I didn't go into that meeting with the intention of playing dueling lawyers, but that turned out to be a teachable moment for them. 

In my last couple of years of teaching, "bullying" was THE hot topic.  We had meetings, in-services, working groups, committees ad nauseum all trying to come up with some "anti-bullying plan."  I made the observation in a number of settings that the most bullied group of people in any school is the teachers.  We should clean our own house first, set ground rules for acceptable conduct and enforce them.  That notion, of course, went no where.

Si facile, omnes esset facere....
Mister L.