Teachers thwart children’s entrance into the real world

I get one or two interview requests every day. I say no to written interviews because if I’m going to write anything I want it to be for my site, not someone else’s. So I tell people I’ll do phone interviews. Then I try to schedule the phone interviews for crazy times like midnight on Tuesday nights when we are driving home from cello lessons.

Recently I got an interview request via email from Thi, a high school student, who said

In Honors English, we’re reading Outliers and then writing an essay on it. We also have to interview a person who fits our definition of success.

Obviously, I chose you. To be mindful of your time, I composed questions as well as answers from some of your blog posts that really stood out to me.

I think that these answers wouldn’t be much different than if I had asked you the questions myself. Also, I think it would be interesting to see yourself through someone else’s eyes via the answers I put. Is this ok with you?

I scanned through the questions and answers and they were great. Clearly Thi knew my blog inside out. And she was right—it was interesting to see how someone else would structure my answers.

I wrote an email back. I was going to be effusive: You saved so much time, you are the smartest interviewer ever, I wish everyone would interview me like this.

But I didn’t say all that. Instead I wrote, “You did a great job. Thank you for saving me so much time.”

Then I got an email from his teacher.

Hello Penelope, 
Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer my English student’s questions for her research paper on success.  Being chosen for this interview means that the student sees you as a model for success in some vital, meaningful way.
If you were not interviewed by Thi Nguyen in the past two weeks about your success story, please reply back with “huh??” and accept my apology in advance for having to read this message (I’m simply doing my due diligence and checking for authenticity).
If you were interviewed, no need to reply back. . . 
Thanks so much for supporting this classroom endeavor!

I had to read this email twice. Three times. Because it is so outrageous that I couldn’t even figure out what the teacher was saying at first.

The teacher is emailing me to find out if his student cheated. Here’s why I’m outraged:

1.This email is a total waste of my time. Thi took great pains to make sure I didn’t have to spend extra time on the project and the teacher did the total opposite. The student knows the most important lesson about the project: how to get a busy person to respond back to you. The teacher has no idea how to teach this lesson, but luckily the student is way ahead.

2. The teacher is so disrespectful and undermining of Thi. I now have a relationship with Thi. I will remember her name and respond quickly when another email comes. The teacher’s email belittles Thi, questions Thi’s morals, and makes all the questions seem like they were asked to earn a grade. Which we know they were not, because, it turns out that Thi has been emailing me with questions for three years.

3. Thi is doing great self-learning and the teacher is ruining it. The teacher is getting involved in something that Thi is managing fine single-handedly. The teacher is degrading relationships Thi established. The teacher is implying that Thi would not be a self-directed learner without the external push of an assignment. It’s pathetic.

The assumption that adults need to mediate relationships that kids have is nuts. Thi’s instincts are so much better than the teachers for how to reach out to people. Teachers live in a school bubble where they rarely have to interact in a meaningful way with business people. But most kids they teach will not go into academia. So why do so many parents leave their kids stuck, held back by teachers who choose to exist outside the work world?

37 replies
  1. Katherine
    Katherine says:

    I see where you are coming from with your points, but disagree. The teacher asked you (a busy person) to not reply if, in fact, Thi’s communication with you had taken place. Yes, you had to read an email- so that is time spent. But you didn’t even have to reply.

    And it seems like a slight to this particular teacher/student relationship to not take Thi at his word- granted. But also- meh. I homeschool my oldest and still question her word at times. I think that will happen in relationships- parent/child, teacher/student, etc.

    I think I’m missing some of the reason for outrage. This seems pretty okay to me. I’m incredibly impressed by Thi, and also see why his educator did what she did.

    • gordana dragicevic
      gordana dragicevic says:

      *The teacher asked you (a busy person) to not reply if, in fact, Thi’s communication with you had taken place. Yes, you had to read an email- so that is time spent. But you didn’t even have to reply. *
      That’s precisely why the request was a waste of time. If Penelope doesn’t answer it doesn’t automatically mean she was interviewed by the student… It could equally mean she never read the message, or found it too stupid to bother with answering. The teacher doesn’t know how to ask a question that will generate a useful answer, and wastes both Penelope’s time and his/her own :)

  2. redrock
    redrock says:

    Actually, if you substitute teacher by employer and student by employee, intern, apprentice it does not seem particularly outrageous that the employer, boss, checks on the work occasionally. And by the way: teacher is a real job, so it takes place in the real world – it just does not take place in the business world setting, or the military world setting, or the farmer world setting, or the corporate world setting, or the academia world setting.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      Unfortunately, this is true. My boss often asks me if so and so has asked me for this or that. I know she doesn’t ask about me because I’m usually a step ahead of everybody anyway. She usually asks this about more junior people. I guess since you put it that way, it *is* normal. It just rubbed me the wrong way. And, it’s also true that school is the real world. The idea that “business” is the be all and end all of everything is flawed.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        That’s a really messed up way to manage. If you have employees you can’t trust you should fire them and hire people you can trust. And if you don’t pay enough to hire people you can trust, you end up paying on the other end — having managers waste their time checking up on everyone.


        • Gretchen
          Gretchen says:

          Yep, there’s a lot messed up. It works for me since I’m older and have earned trust to mostly be left to my own devices…

        • Redrock
          Redrock says:

          Well, there are a lot of people who can not and do not trust anybody, sometimes it is just spot checking to make sure things are going smoothly. but as an employee it definitely would drive me crazy if someone checked every step I take. There is a reason I am in academia.

  3. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    I think it’s pretty gross and cheesy what the teacher did, actually…and see the point of this one. My only hope/retort would be that not all teachers are like this, but you can bet I take my kid’s side and I take my kid’s word and don’t assume children are sneaky liars.

  4. sheela
    sheela says:

    This is a high school problem, not a teacher problem. When I was a high school English teacher, I would never have taken the time to follow up on every student’s research beyond basic googling….I think this sounds like smart, thorough, responsible, caring teacher. The system teachers work in always felt like a another country, with its own gobbledegook language, arbitrary rules and utter lack of common sense. It’s the system I avoid by homeschooling. There are many teachers within it who would love to be able to do their job differently.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I’m just shocked that this is a controversial post. Look, if high school teachers assign stuff that kids think is totally stupid, then it makes sense the kids would not want to spend time on it.

      Additionally, if the teacher is asking kids to dream up something that is very easily found online then only stupid kids would bother dreaming it up again. Smart kids know they can google to find the answer.

      Honestly, the skill kids need to develop is using a search engine. It’s much harder to come up with good questions than it is to come up with good answers. If you know the question you can find it online. Teachers should test on how well kids look for answers online. Not how well kids dream up answers on their own.


      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        I am reading “What Should We Be Worried About?” (since you mentioned it in a post), and one of the best articles so far has been on data analysis.

        We need to teach students how to analyze data. Otherwise we will be completely illiterate and at the mercy of the few and powerful who are capable of reading data and translating it into something meaningful (e.g. credit scores).

        There is so much this generation needs to be learning, I can’t believe we are wasting time teaching them how to use flash cards.

  5. amber kane
    amber kane says:

    Thi sounds like an awesome kid that I would love to have in my classroom. While I”m going to say that teaching is a real job, I am one, as with anything, putting an entire group of people into one category is dangerous. There are a lot of teachers out there that I don’t agree with, that I don’t even think are teaching. And then there are some kick ass teachers. Much of my day is spent ignoring rules, and trying to teach my students how to imagine, empathize, question, think. And me wondering if I should leave the school system.

    The issue is the student teacher relationship. When a teacher spends time, and gets to know who her students, she can stop wasting everyone’s time asking stupid questions. Plus does it really matter in what way he interviewed you? He came up with questions and got the answers.

  6. Kris
    Kris says:

    I love your blog because while I frequently cringe at the tone, it also makes me rethink my “truths”. When I first read through this I thought you were nuts =P And then I clicked through to read the comments because I know you aren’t, so maybe I’m missing something.

    At first it made complete sense to me. Kids cheat, so the teacher is following up to make sure this kids actually are doing the assigned work. I wish some of my kid’s teachers were so thorough. But then I opened my mind after reading the comments and realized – what is actually the point? What NEEDS to be taught?

    I may not agree with your point of view 100% on this one still (we’re trying to reverse 40 years of ‘learning’ here) but I definitely understand it better.

  7. Cora Valentine
    Cora Valentine says:

    (I’m simply doing my due diligence and checking for authenticity).

    For every single student? What an absurd waste of time.

    • Beth
      Beth says:

      In an institution I used to teach for, if we suspected one student of plagiarizing, we were required to check the work of every. single. student. regardless of the relationship we had with the student. Otherwise, the student who did plagiarize was allowed to argue that s/he was singled out and persecuted. It sucked and I got out of there, but as a result I am hesitant to jump on the this is a bad teacher. It is a waste of time, but it may be a waste of time the teacher is forced to undertake.

      • Cora Valentine
        Cora Valentine says:

        Whatever the driver, it is still a waste of time. That it may be school policy borders on ludicrous.

  8. MBL
    MBL says:

    From the title, I was really expecting that you would go in different direction. I thought you would go with the complete lack of autonomy that teenagers have to change their circumstances and creatively solve any conflicts that they have with the system. My understanding is that any attempt at a win/win result that the student comes up with is likely to be seen as insubordination for even challenging something. I hope that I am wrong, but I believe that this is the norm. Even if the teacher or admin is receptive, many things are denied with “If we make an exception for you, then everyone will want to do it.” I understand that that can be “real world” training. However the lack of options for extrication from that situation are severely limited for most teenagers.

    I love Thi’s approach. It shows a much greater understanding of reading for comprehension than any book report could. I would love to see her results. I am also curious if she had an attention grabbing subject line or just the generic “Request for interview.”

  9. Hubbard
    Hubbard says:

    I’m curious about how Thi structured your thoughts into a Q&A format. Could you please post the interview on the blog? Or do you not have permission to do so?

  10. Sadya
    Sadya says:

    The fact that you replied to Thi’s email was evidence enough. It’s true the teacher’s cross-checking of a high school kid is a waste time, mostly her own time.
    The teacher could have worded her email better, could have thanked you for taking time to connect with Thi. And in turn might have made her a connection in the business world.

    And if checking on kids’ assignments is there to induce morality in them, then she is truly in a bubble

  11. sarah
    sarah says:

    And what did you reply to the teacher? Did you send this blog post as a reply, or ignore him? Do you think Thi will be tempted to show her teacher?

    I hate having to check up on people because they are to stupid to do their jobs…. yet I do. But to me if a student doesn’t want to learn, or goes to all that trouble to fake it who cares? It’s not like this assignment effects college, or their future job.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      well, as long as many places retain the utterly stupid grading on a curve which is supposed to promote the competitive spirit – the students classmates will care a lot if someone takes “shortcuts”…

      • Thi
        Thi says:

        There is no curve in Honors English.

        Some people actually fabricated the interview, gave a fake email that they had made, and then replied to the email themselves.

  12. Betzi Sheperd
    Betzi Sheperd says:

    Hold on. I believe there’s a fine point being missed here. Finding information online, and constructing it into an assignment was exactly what Thi did. And she did communicate with Penelope to basically ask permission if she could represent her that way. And that could be seen as creative or time-saving. And there’s nothing wrong with it unless the skill that was actually supposed to be practiced was an actual interview. If I were Thi’s teacher or unschooling parent, the experience of a conversation with the person Thi viewed as successful would matter to me. (Hopefully an interview by email wouldn’t count for such an assignment anyway. If so, then she might as well have done the assignment the way she did because the point would then be to just get the information.) If a person-to-person interaction is the way in which the information must be acquired, then the teacher’s email, though poorly executed, was warranted. Thi is resourceful and creative but she may have missed the point of the assignment and that matters. Or maybe not. But using a search engine is not the be-all and end-all. I would argue that real-time communication is a dying art that will continue to deteriorate if students in or out of school aren’t required to look up from their screens.

    Thank you for your thought-provoking blog, Penelope. I am a new reader and look forward to each post.

    • Betzi Sheperd
      Betzi Sheperd says:

      I’ve been thinking about it some more and it’s starting to really bother me that the situation has been simplified into “student is creative, teacher is dumb”, with no thought given to what the student actually missed out on by doing her project this way.

      An interview requires that you process information you receive aurally and respond and apply it. There might be some note-taking involved. There is also opportunity for creativity in that there may be follow up questions questions generated by what you hear the person say in real time. In fact, the interview might take a totally different road than you anticipated as the interviewer, which is an opportunity for creativity in the moment. What Thi did is a research project or biography project. Even if she presented the research or the biography report in an interview format (a creative way to present information that you found through research).

      Terry Gross could present her program by just reading the person’s blogs and spitting it back out to us too, but that wouldn’t be considered very creative, would it? But it would save time for the person being interviewed.

  13. Nur Costa
    Nur Costa says:

    I am surprised. A similar thing happened to me. The person I interviewed did not have a blog, so I couldn’t have a good enough grasp of his personality to build the answers from his own words.
    However, the teacher did send an email to the professional asking if the interview was real or not. I was totally disappointed on how the teacher acted and managed the whole situation. However, I never looked at it the same way as you exposed.
    I am starting to consider homeschooling my kids (if I ever have them). I’d never thought I’d say this… but with 21 years old I believe less and less in almost every institution there is in Spain (school, church, royal family).
    I am from Catalonia, and I hope we will get the chance to be independent in the next referendum. I’d change so many things about my own country.

  14. Elana
    Elana says:

    Do we have to always assume the worst of teachers? This looks like a thank you note to me. I think a lot of teachers realize that many busy professionals would never take the time to respond to a high school student’s request. Expressing her gratitude to someone who might share her commitment to supporting young people seems pretty gracious to me.

  15. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    HS teachers should not be “checking” with a source for validation. It betrays trust. Even if the student give permission to do so, its still wrong. I’d be willing to bet this is a school administration rule and not the teacher’s rule.

    15-16 year olds are trusted with a myriad of adult responsibilities such as holding a job, babysitting, cooking, cleaning, tutoring, etc. with minimal supervision, this is no different and I see this as more as a CYA move on the school administration/teachers part than a proactive move to ensure validity on a project.

    Before you start to argue, how many times have you had an argument with your spouse who seconded guessed a statement you made or an action you took? ( this is assuming you did not ask them for initial feedback)You don’t like it and the reason why? You don’t feel as though your spouse trusts your judgment.

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