Questions Raised By AP Calculus Trouble

by Abe Asher

With Calculus teacher Jacqui Gardner slated to be on maternity leave for the majority of the first semester of this school year, OES hired former Phillips Exeter teacher and seventeen-year Catlin Gabel veteran Joan Piper to take over Jacqui’s classes on an interim basis.

This wasn’t a new situation. When Jacqui was on maternity leave two years ago, another teacher filled in without incident. Joan shadowed Jacqui during her last week at school, and there was no sign of trouble. Then, quickly, things turned sour.

Last week, just before conferences and the end of the first quarter, more than 30 BC and AB Calculus students signed their name to a letter addressed to Head of the Upper School Jordan Elliott outlining concerns with the direction of class and style of teaching.

In a quick response, Jordan took the rare step of ensuring that first quarter Calculus grades would not be sent to colleges — while challenging students to make the best of what had clearly become a strained and difficult situation.

For OES, it was a nearly unprecedented, uncomfortable, and stressful breakdown between teacher and class that featured high dosages of anger, emotion, and frustration.

The goal of this article is not to address the individual incidents involved in this situation in detail or name any names. The saga, which has mostly settled at this point as everyone involved looks to move forward, wasn’t healthy for anyone individual or party involved.

The point of interest here, however, is not that this happened, but rather, why it happened. How could a group of predominantly seniors and other upperclassmen, in less than a month, unite in strident, organized protest of a substitute teacher?

Math Department Chair Liz Weiler has several ideas, saying, “I do believe in our students, and I do want to honor their opinions, but I also want students to rise up to challenges and grow from them. Is that an impossible thing to ask in a school where there is so much pressure on grades and performance?”

Joan reflected on OES’ particular concern with grades as well in comparison to Catlin, saying, “My impression is people here are much more overtly anxious about grades. People are much more in your face about it here. At Catlin, you don’t get letter grades. There’s a part of the culture of that school that deemphasizes grades. I think grades get in the way of learning, frankly.”

Another issue — grade inflation — is on Joan’s mind as well. “The schools in New England were all more rigorous schools than here or Catlin. Grades were important, but the level of work was more rigorous as well. Bs and Cs was much more acceptable — to colleges too. If people earned a C, that’s what they got.”

Certainly, the closing in of college deadlines and reality of colleges potentially receiving a damaging first quarter Calculus grade was a major concern for a segment of students.

In a school with a reputation — earned or not — for entitlement and privilege, it’s fair to say that running to the school principal at the first sign of trouble instead of trying to make the situation work wasn’t a good look. Calculus student Nat S. said, “People overreacted. I’d never seen anything like it. It wasn’t a high point for OES students as a whole.”

As Liz said, “We all have challenges. The question is how we handle them. Here was a challenge that I thought the students would seize, but for some it did not work out quite that way.”

On one hand, the response from students and the administration led Liz — and others — to justifiably wonder, “Are we developing gritty students?” On the other, it’s easy for anyone who has been in a similar situation to empathize with the frustration of having a bad relationship with a teacher and trying to address the problem.

The teacher-student relationship is one of the most special — and maybe one of the few under-marketed — aspects of OES. Many teachers have unusually strong bonds with students. That was missing here. Said Liz, “Jacqui has the trust of the students… but it takes time build those bonds.”

Several factors, including the college aspect, made this particular situation particularly combustible. Nat pointed to a “big disconnect between what students were expecting and her [Joan’s] teaching style.” Other students wondered if the situation could have been avoided had Joan simply started the year teaching the class.

Almost everyone interviewed pointed to the extremely difficult nature of Calculus itself, regardless of the teacher, and wondered whether there were unrealistic expectations from the outset about how successful students could be in the course. This was, as well, a major point of Jordan’s letter to students and parents. There is a palpable feeling amongst both teachers and students that Joan was scapegoated for the natural and unavoidable challenge of the material.

“What people don’t understand that the jump to Calculus is not a nice, smooth transition,” Joan said. “The level of abstraction is much greater. That’s why not everyone should take Calculus in high school. A lot of people just aren’t ready for it. This has nothing to do with the teacher. Jacqui was basically doing review. I honestly think this would have happened if Jacqui was here too. I just think they would have treated her differently.”

Calculus student and Dig writer Johnny Seabright said, “I feel like people were upset because of the change in teachers — not necessarily because of Joan. As a teacher, I felt like Joan was completely up to par — if not above it.”

Liz said that she, “feels extremely honored and pleased that we have someone like Joan coming in for a teacher on maternity leave. That doesn’t always happen.”

Joan is confident in her own abilities, saying, “I don’t lose sleep over what happened. I know I’m a good teacher. I know that my students are learning. A lot of them are digging in their heels and saying this isn’t the way it’s always been, but it honestly doesn’t worry me. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I have faith in what I’m doing.”

It’s always ugly when students turn on teachers. Both students and teachers are trying to their respective jobs and go home in good shape at the end of the day. They need each other’s good faith efforts to be successful.

When the relationship turns or feels adversarial, no one ends up in good shape — and that’s not to say that what students did in this situation was wrong. On the contrary, the consequences of these situations for students are very real, while teachers need security and support to do their jobs well.

The pressure to achieve at OES and for OES students is immense, and thus, the room for error — or, in this case, an adjustment period to a new teacher — is low. At times, because of grades, perspective can be short supply.

If anything, this case was a testament to the impact students can have when organized and on-message. The measures taken to appease students in Calculus are, to say the least, not often granted. Joan, who told me that she would still accept a job at OES today, said that, “I didn’t know that there was a letter until Jordan told me about it. I still haven’t seen it.”

At the end of the day, as Nat told me, and as most everyone knows deep down, “You have to make it work.” While multiple teachers and students interviewed for this story commented on their disappointment in the level of animosity and disrespect shown by some students, Joan added that, “The vast majority of the kids I’m teaching are respectful and wanting to learn.”

How much should teachers have to answer to students? Should students have a recourse against teachers? That’s all up for debate. In a perfect world, everyone would always get along. In ours, even as this situation settles, those are questions we continue to grapple with.

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