Let’s Not

I knew I was in trouble when the principal needed to talk with me regarding a parent complaint. The parent said I used the word crap in class often. The parent also said that I told students to memorize PEMDAS as Please Excuse My Dumb Ass Sister.

I admitted to my principal that I said crap enough times. And the PEMDAS thing… Well, it was really a ha-ha joke that my high school students from the previous year taught me, and I never actually wrote out the word Ass, I just wrote down A__, so technically my clever middle schoolers deciphered that on their own.

The parent found me in my classroom after school shortly after. She brought up the aforementioned, and I apologized. Profusely. I was genuinely sorry that she found the word crap offensive. I told her that I then realized it was unprofessional and would not utter the word again in class. I promised I would apologize to all my students the next day.

But then she had more to say, Mrs. Nguyen, we’re a Christian family, and we raise our children to be… 

The rest of her words — I don’t recall exactly — were condemning. She could have just punched me in the face. The effect felt the same. I looked over to the other side of my classroom where my own three children — then ages 8, 9, and 12 — were doing their homework. Our eyes met. My kids attended the same school.

I apologized to my students the next day.

Then after school I went to my principal’s office because what the parent had said to me in front of my children continued to anger me. She had projected her Christianity on me in front of my kids as if I were amoral and indecent for saying crap. I told my principal what happened and concluded with — and I remember my words verbatim because I was really upset — “If she ever comes back and speaks to me like that again, I will tell her exactly what I think, and then you’d have to fucking fire me.”


Maybe it was the very ugly custody battle I went through that has made me crazy protective of my three kids and my role as a parent. You don’t get to judge me from a distance. You don’t get to judge me based on what 4-letter words I say. You certainly don’t get to judge me through a religious lens.

I’m pretty much this crazy protective when it comes to my students and my role as a teacher.

We talk about the bad policies crafted by people in thick-carpet land, so let’s not have those policies trickle down into our classroom and adversely affect our students’ learning or their love of learning. Let’s not follow that textbook that we hate — so what if the school had adopted it. Just because we inadvertently bought spoiled food does not mean we should consume it. We talk about spending too much time reviewing for tests, so let’s stop reviewing for the goddamn tests.

Let’s not believe for one second that we don’t have a voice.

Let’s smile and nod and gather up all the handouts in our next meaningless PD, then throw them out when we get back into our classroom and do a Math Munch or 3-Act lesson.

I go batshit crazy when I hear of teachers doing things that they know are not good for their students. Why are we doing it then?

I’m afraid I know the answer to this already: We don’t want to lose our job.

But. But. Did we not get into teaching because we love teaching and our subject matter and most of all we love our students? How can we justify implementing poor pedagogy and delivering contrived content to the young people whom we promised to give our best and be their advocates? Why are we wasting their time?

We — classroom teachers — make a direct impact on our students’ learning. This impact is not unlike that of a parent-child relationship. And for some students, we are the missing guardian in their life. They depend on us to make the right decisions when administrators and policy makers do not. They depend on us to be the voice that they don’t always have. They trust us to work toward fixing a broken system instead of being a part of it. We would do all this and more as a parent. We should do all this and more as a teacher.

I’ve always needed a job, an income. I don’t have the luxury of shooting my mouth off and doing whatever I fancy in the classroom. I shared the opening story because it happened in my first year of teaching at Mesa and I was well aware of my probationary status. But when a parent crosses the line, or when an administrator/mandate goes too far or does too little, I need to speak up. It’s not bravery or arrogance, it’s duty.

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  1. Posted January 3, 2015 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    I really liked this post. Your comment about throwing out the crappy district lesson plans for Math Munch and the like made me think about the following. I’ve been rewatching The Wire and I see a lot of parallels with our job. There are many flavors of teacher, but these descriptions classify any group on that show, from police to gangbangers. Some work within the system to the best of their ability (use higher-up “required” plans). Some work outside the system (use whatever works). Some are [insert job verb] to make a difference at their current level. Some are [insert job verb] in order to rise up the ladder to make a difference, or make more money, or have more power. Some are incompetent in the beginning but find their niche. Some will always be imcompetent. Some are quiet in dissent. Some are loud.
    Thankfully, I don’t know of any murderers in the teaching ranks.

  2. Chris
    Posted January 3, 2015 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Nice post. I agree with all that you said. I believe that I am pretty good at weeding out nonsense. The one area where I struggle is test prep. I am curious how much time you spend, if any, doing review for testing. Unfortunately I think much of what I consider good teaching does not carry over to testing. I struggle with that transfer piece. How do you take a Mathmunch or 3act lesson and use it to prepare kids for the reality that is testing? I don’t know. The one thing I do know is that test prep raises test scores. So, in order to keep admin off my back I feel obliged to do the testing dance.

    • Fawn
      Posted January 3, 2015 at 10:08 am | Permalink

      Hi Chris. We do review for tests. I’ve actually taken out one of our math warm-up days to look at sample SBAC questions. But I’m not concerned or complaining about the amount of review time that I choose to spend. What I refer to in post is more about doing too much of something and complaining about it as if our hands were tied. I’m concerned when teachers say they “can’t” do something — is it can’t or won’t. I think we all do some sort of dance to appease our bosses — who themselves have bosses — but we need to always be cognizant of how we spend that direct contact time with students. If we can justify it, then that’s what we need to be doing. But if we can’t, then it’s a disservice to the students. Thank you, Chris.

    • Posted January 4, 2015 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

      I think what transfers from a fun engaging lesson that is useful for testing is the willingness to think deeply about a problem. When it’s fun or interesting, they’ll give it more attention and energy than usual, and in the process hopefully see the usefulness of whatever math is involved. I do some test prep too (usually a practice test and review) but I think that is mainly useful for test taking strategy. I really believe that a student’s willingness to grapple with a problem can raise test scores even if the content is not identical.

  3. Laura jenkins
    Posted January 3, 2015 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Fawn, I love your blog & have listened to interviews you’ve given online. Twitter has been so instrumental in my life as a teacher and you were the first person I followed. I’m also a Christian & stories like this make me so sad. I wish you could’ve said instead that she was the most helpful parent in your class and provided so much encouragement and support you. Ultimately Christians must be marked by love. Again, I’m sorry.

    • Raelynn
      Posted January 4, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, Laura–you said what I wanted to say just as soon as I read that short 4th paragraph.
      Fawn, what I have seen in the little time I have had to read your blogs inspires me. You have amazing ideas! It makes me so sad that to address an issue foundational to your teaching — doing whatever needs to be done to make your students strong mathematically — you are stirred to fighting words by the memory of someone who appears to have spoken in a manner the very antithesis of what she proclaimed to be. I hope that since that time you have had Christian students and parents who soothed the bad taste left in your mouth.
      How I wish you taught at my school, Fawn–what a whirlwind of inspiration you leave behind you! It would be so good to have another math person with whom to brainstorm. Thank you for the time you take to talk about those ideas so I can benefit a little from afar.

      • Fawn
        Posted January 5, 2015 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        Hi Raelynn. Oh, no worries, I have the best parents and kids (and administrators and colleagues) where I’m at. It’s the Shangri-La of schools, I tell ya. :) I don’t deserve your kind words, but thank you so much, Raelynn.

    • Fawn
      Posted January 5, 2015 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Hi Laura. I have many many helpful and kind parents who are Christians and non-Christians alike. I, and my three children, were baptized into the Catholic Church. This was about one parent who decided to be preachy and took the holier-than-thou stance with me. If my kids were not present, I would have responded to her, but I was also caught off guard. There are no absolutes in life, one does not always equal another. Thank you, Laura, for leaving me your kind words.

  4. Posted January 3, 2015 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Great post.

  5. Posted January 3, 2015 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

    I love what you have written. Stick to your guns, and keep up the good work.
    And now for two anecdotes from the past:
    1. I took a degree in mathematics from Oxford University (England!) 1962 – 65. The university had a Latin motto “Nil illegitimae carborundum”, for which no-one knew the official translation, but there was an unofficial one, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”. I have aimed to put that into practice ever since that time.
    2. When I was about three years into my first university job I was called in to see the head of department (Oh dear, what had I done?). The question I was asked was “Is this job here your career, or is it a means of financing your other activities?”. There was, to me, only one answer, which I gave. “A bit of both.”, I said, and never heard any more. They left me alone after that!

    Regarding test prep, if you have done your teaching well according to your vision then a couple of weeks spent on test preparation is sensible. I have checked out what I could find from PARCC and the others. A lot of it is perfectly reasonable, but there are a few horrors, which I have blogged about.

  6. Posted January 5, 2015 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Deeply touched. Thanks for standing up for the kids.

    I have wondered about similar things from a parent’s perspective. Here’s
    something I wrote on the topic last year.

  7. Posted January 5, 2015 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Solid. Well done.

    And, on behalf of Christians, sorry some of us are idiots… more than some… half? I’m not sure.

    Sorry that enough idiot Christians exist that stories like this one keep happening all over the place. Sorry about that.

    More love, less judgment.


  8. Posted January 5, 2015 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful post. You’ve captured the tension we often feel between what we have to do to keep our jobs, and what we are compelled to do as moral human beings. Chris Hedges wrote about this in a powerful essay several years ago.
    Sadly, little has changed. Fortunately we are also citizens, and can use our voices and lead by example in our own communities. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. Charity
    Posted January 5, 2015 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    I know this probably doesn’t mean much to you, but I look up to you as a teacher. You are real inspiration. It was nice to read that even one of my big inspirations still has those HORRIBLE parent problems that just leave you shaking from anger and shock. YOU ARE AWESOME!!!!!!!!

  10. Tricia
    Posted December 19, 2017 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    I am also sorry that a Christian misunderstood what Jesus asks of her. You are the bomb Fawn and, I believe, that God made you just as you are for a purpose; which has meant a lot to me from way over here in South Carolina. I am sorry you were judged like that.

  11. Ryan
    Posted August 7, 2018 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    Hi Fawn,

    First off, I think you’re an awesome and effective math teacher. From all your posts and lessons, I believe you have your students best interests.

    However, I’m not so sure I agree with your response to the parent. I believe she was stating her reasons for being offended by the use of your language and have to agree that it’s inappropriate in the classroom. Much in the same way you feel she was projecting her Christian values onto you, you were also projecting your protectiveness of what your kids hear about you onto her. She had every right to explain why she didn’t want her kids to be exposed to questionable language by a teacher, a role model.

    It seems like you just didn’t want to be humbled in front of your children. In fact it could’ve been used as a constructive way for your kids to see their mom make a mistake and apologize for it. End of story.

    Your response to your administrator is surprising! Clearly your language is suspect. There are more appropriate and professional ways to get your point across. Just my humble opinion.

    • Fawn
      Posted August 7, 2018 at 3:40 am | Permalink

      Hi Ryan. Thank you for dropping in and leaving me a comment. The principal was/is a friend also, I spoke with him out of trust and mutual respect.

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