Monday, November 23, 2015


I am not a huge fan of homework, especially in the elementary and middle grades. I understand homework as something assigned to students who were unable to complete the task during class time, either because they were goofing, or because they need extra time because they are slow. Slow and steady wins the race and all that. Assigning homework because the teacher was goofing or slow, however, is another matter entirely.

As a parent, I was constantly amazed at the apparent expectation that we teach our children the school curriculum while being regaled with stories about "Thursday afternoon film parties" or "Friday candy parties" or whatever. Every time we went to show our daughters a movie, we inevitably got "We saw that in school already" but when we asked about math or English, we were told "she gave us the worksheet and told us to do this at home". I might not have believed my kids version of things if my wife hadn't been in the classroom at the end of the year when the teacher said, "I forgot to teach printing this term, so here's the booklet, take it home over the summer and have you parents do it with you." I kid you not. I might not have believed my wife, had the same teacher not told me that she wasn't doing parent-teacher interviews during the two days set aside for them (i.e., classes cancelled and school closed for parent-teacher interviews) because she was going to Los Vegas with her boyfriend. (I actually get there may be circumstances when skipping out may be necessary, but should you be telling parents you're blowing them off? What drives me the most crazy is that many of my best graduates can't find permanent teaching jobs, and yet this lazy incompetent is teaching my kids...)

Don't be that teacher: don't send work home because you lacked the motivation or classroom management skills to actually cover the curriculum in class. Occasional homework for the few students who didn't get the job done because they were having trouble focusing that day, or for a whole class that was having one of those days, okay. Part of learning to manage time and deadlines is that if you miss the deadline, there is going to be homework. Kids get that, and parents get that. But if 'occasional catch up' turns into a regular pattern, then the problem is structural—i.e., you. Assigning out of class work to the whole class routinely is just bad teaching in the lower grades, and probably way overdone in the higher ones.

The cartoon at the top of the page nicely illustrates one of the problems: most parents aren't professional teachers and won't necessarily know anything about whatever you're teaching in class. Asking parents to teach for you by asking them to supervise homework is saying "anyone can do this, you don't need an Education degree or have any content knowledge." Do you really want to send that message home on a daily basis? Because that is not a good thing for the public to believe when it comes time for salary negotiations. Just saying.

But the cartoon is about a middle-class stay-at-home dad working with his average kid. In reality, one has to be careful sending work home when one knows nothing about what 'home' is like. Sending work home to my house is great: my kids have two professors for parents, both of whom happened to have trained as teachers as well. As professionals we have the resources to find the books, computers, study area, and—if necessary—even tutors to ensure that our child can keep up with (or get ahead of) the rest of the class. Oh, and our kid's parents are happily married, so there is not a lot of yelling or drama interfering with quiet homework time.

Ours is perhaps not an average household. I stopped sending homework home when one of my students explained that her parents didn't speak a word of English when I asked her why she hadn't gotten her parents to proofread her essay. Well, duh. A moment's reflection and it should be obvious that relying on parents to take charge of the student's reading program or math facts or whatever else you're sending home ignores the fact that many kids come from ESL homes; or working class homes where both parents have to work, work two jobs, or shift work, or otherwise aren't available; or unstable homes where parents may have other preoccupations than spending an hour on spelling practice; or just a home with three other kids, all of whom have been assigned the same two hours of homework; and so on. You don't know what their home life is like, and by counting on someone else to do the teaching for you, you are widening the gap between the haves and the have nots. School is supposed to be the great equalizer, the one fair and safe place in the world for kids. Not so much if you routinely ignore the very different opportunities available to kids outside the classroom.

Or how about this: maybe home time should be about family, not work that the teacher didn't have time for in the six or seven hour work day. My kids have Tae Kown Do four nights a week (with some of the best teachers I have ever encountered) and music lessons, and recitation, and all the extras our incomes provide. Fitting that in with supper and actually having time to talk with my kids is already making me wonder if I am over-programming my kids—I am therefore not happy to find my family time has been appropriated by apparently lazy teachers who feel they have the right to program, not just my child's time, but mine too! And I'm a ridiculously privileged white male. If I resent teachers intruding on and colonizing my child's after school hours, how do you think the average parent feels.

So, you know, don't do that. If my kid brings homework home because she was goofing and that means she has to miss out of some fun family activity that one day, fine. That's teaching her about consequences and I am all for it. If I have to cancel Tae Kown Do or music lessons altogether because homework has become a routine timesuck, then that is not okay, especially in the lower grades. My oldest is currently in Grade 12 IB, so okay, there is going to be some homework because a Grade 12 IB student is developing the time-management and self-direction one expects of an adult. But if you are sending anything home in elementary, or more than 20 minutes/day in Junior High/Middle school, you're making a mistake.

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