The Girl Who Wasn’t Here

Note: I wrote this post six or seven years ago (can’t remember now) and it was the first post for which I was called to the principal’s office. It was one of those ominous Friday evening Outlook “meeting requests” to meet with admin on Monday morning before school. The only note in the request: “blog post.” I called the principal at home to see if I needed to bring a union rep.

When you read it, you’ll likely see that it isn’t particularly controversial, which was what at first confused me about my reprimand. Still relatively early in my career, and very new to blogging, I made the rounds apologizing to administrators and ultimately pulled the post down from Stories from School even though it had already garnered several comments and reposts…and even though I had modified enough details of the kids’ stories to protect the innocent while still emphasizing the impact of the policy. Their concern was that a parent could read the post, read through the modifications, and still see themselves and their student, then be upset.

A recent conversation with a teacher at Denver’s TTLSummit reminded me of this post, as this teacher was struggling with building-level policies that she wanted to see changed for the benefit of students.

A few weeks ago, she and her family moved into my district. It was perfect timing to join my class, as we were just starting to read the next novel and she could step right in with us.

Two days after she arrived, she was absent.

No big deal, I thought.  Then, she proceeded to miss two more days.

It turned out that she had skipped those other two days; or at least no one at home would vouch for her absences, despite her claims of illness. So, when the attendance team caught on, the second day after she returned to my class, she was promptly whisked off to meet with the principal about her truancy.

By the end of her third week in my school, she had been on campus only eight days. Four of those had been in ISS serving time, some for truancy, some for defiance to teachers in other classes.

She attended two days in week four, then was absent again. Again, no parent would vouch for her absence. I couldn’t make contact with parents, nor could my teaching partners. The counselors were tearing their hair out trying to find ways to help her.  The administration was spending a good chunk of each school day trying to arrange meetings with parents.  They’d make contact, the parent would agree to come in, and then wouldn’t show.

The Wednesday of what would have been her fifth week as a student in my class was her first day back in my class. Within fifteen minutes of the start of the period, a TA appeared with a note from the attendance office. The note, from the in-school-suspension monitor, had the girl’s name on it, and the bolded and highlighted word NOW.

The TA told me, “I have to take her with me. They want her right now.”

That was Wednesday. Thursday, her classmates informed me that she had “dropped out.”

I know my concern is shared by other teachers. On one hand is the paradoxical nature of our system of punishment in secondary schools keeps out of class the kids who probably most need consistent, reliable adults. On the other hand is the school’s obligation to follow through on policies for truancy and misbehavior. Administrators and teachers alike see the problems with the system. For many kids, the system works just fine.  In this young lady’s case, it was a perfect storm of truancy, parental non-support, other misbehavior, and the need to enforce reasonable policies to sustain a learning environment for the rest of her peers.

In the case of this young woman, as I investigated and learned more about the family, I discovered that I had taught her brother several years ago after he had bounced through two other English teachers with whom he butted heads. Their family had been splintered by the difficulties too many families face, and she and one parent had moved back to my community to follow work opportunities. Remembering her brother I recalled a genuinely good kid whose path had not led him to much success in high school. He did end up passing my class, but disappeared before his senior year, so I don’t know what became of him. I had gotten to know him. I liked him–he had a great sense of humor and approached the world with a childlike sense of awe. We worked well together and he worked hard to please me–and his pride grew as he began to see success. I want to think that because we worked well together, he just might have stayed in school a little longer than he would have had he not been marched into my class on that behavior contract.

Policy is policy, I get that. But as I investigated this situation, I found person after person who tried to bend the policies to serve this young woman. None of us had enough time with her to forge that critical relationship that keeps many kids in school.

Not even a whole semester into her high school career, and already this girl is gone. Even when she was here, she was not allowed to be here.

Thankfully, the policies described above have shifted a little because of the efforts of teachers, counselors and administrators: greater efforts are made to deliberately intervene and foster student relationships with those in the toughest situations, and teachers can request permission (even if it is not always granted, it depends on the offense) to have students sprung from ISS to attend certain classes or serve detention in the teacher’s classroom after school instead of in the detention room.

3 thoughts on “The Girl Who Wasn’t Here

  1. Jolynn Tarwater

    Mark, Thank you for sharing this. Your story is poignant. I often say that often in education we are our own worst enemies. I think this case illustrates that. I am going to share this blog with other NBCTs through NBCTLink, so we can all consider how to advocate to make a change.

  2. Kristin

    You’re right. It’s senseless to punish truancy with suspension. Truancy is a clear indicator of many things, none of which is going to be fixed with suspension. Truancy means parents might not be paying attention to attendance – they probably won’t care about a suspension! Truancy means the student isn’t invested in her own education – being kicked out for a few days won’t make her care! It means she doesn’t care about what her teachers think – the neglect inherent in suspension won’t make her love her teachers more.
    In-house suspension for fighting maybe, or drug possession, or vandalism, but suspension for truancy? How does that fix anything?
    One of our building’s greatest losses was the budget-cut of the truancy officer. She spent her day tracking down truant kids, conferencing with them, counseling them, and dealing with neglectful parents. Her strategy worked. Kids were found, parents were reminded of their responsibility, and kids came to class. I miss her. Despite my best intentions, I can’t spend three hours on the phone every day, tracking kids down. I don’t think any teacher can.

  3. Renee

    This post brings up a rarely-discussed, but still pertinent issue in today’s schools. Often long periods of truancy and skipping stem from problems that are seemingly more important than a history or math class. Instead of blaming the student or the system, perhaps there are other ways to deal with this issue. You say that with this particular student, that neither yourself nor your colleagues “had enough time with her to forge that critical relationship that keeps many kids in school”. Maybe this is when you find time, outside the classroom with various approaches. Many positive teacher-student relationships can come from extracurriculars, sports, clubs or a connection outside the classroom. While I understand the complexities of these issues of students with difficult home or social environments, it is important that when necessary, teachers, counselors and administrators should positively intervene to better the student, not the system.

    So how can the administration and teachers deal with truancy and suspension problems in a school setting? Perhaps by dealing with these tough situations not with policy, but instead with perception and patience.

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