A few curmudgeonly thoughts on responsibility

Late last month, I invited a recent high school graduate to write an advice column for an upcoming Sunday project that’s running in the Tribune and Contra Costa Times — a guide for college-bound middle and high school students and their families.

The student agreed, and we set an Aug. 10 deadline. On Aug. 11, after not receiving email responses in the previous week, I called to check in. The student was at the doctor’s office and couldn’t talk.

An hour or two later, this Twitter-sized message pops up in my email inbox:

“im pretty sure. i wont be able to do the column, i been feelings horrible lately.”

No apology, no explanation for why it took so long to tell me about the problem (It’s now too late to find someone else), or for why I needed to call to elicit a response in the first place. Heck, not even a complete sentence. All this, from a student-leader who had planned to give advice to younger kids and families.

I realize that people become ill and face unforseen hardships. But they also have cell phones. Well, in this case, anyway.

The incident left me wondering if many teens think that this sort of nonchalant approach to commitment will fly in the real world. Or if they think a deadline such as this will just go away if they don’t act on it. Have others noticed a similar attitude, or am I just being curmudgeonly?

It’s quite possible, too, that this is an isolated instance. I’ve had very positive experiences with my student-bloggers and other teenagers I’ve worked with in the past four-plus years in the Bay Area.

At any rate, I’ll know to have a back-up plan next time.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • O-Town teacher

    There is a learning curve for teachers (and journalists!) working with teens. I taught high school for 17 years and I learned, from trial and error (and subsequent disappointment), to explictly spell out my expectations and requirements, no matter hoow obvious they may appear to me. In a case such as you describe, it would be good emphasize at the outset the imnportance of following through on the commitment, and what to do in case it becomes necessary to renege (but only in case of extreme emergency).

    It’s also good to “chunk” the task into smaller bits, such as starting with brainstorm, followed by an outline, some samples, etc. and checking in periodically (frequently) until you’re completely confident and the student is also invested by virtue of the work already done.

    I also learned to talk, again in very explicit and umambiguous language, about what it means to make a commitment, and take on a responsibility, and that the student,in this case, is being given a special opportunity that might be sought after by others, etc. I also usually share that I trust a student until given reason not to, and that opportunities for future students might be impacted by this student’s performance.

    In a way, it is sort of a sad commentary on the current state of values and sense of responsibility among our high school students, but I find that when I lay things out clearly as explained above, I get much better results.

  • Michael Siegel

    We grow up pretty slow in this society. Speaking as someone who maintained relatively shoddy communication habits through college (except with my grandmother, who actually sent me a check if I hand-wrote her a letter), I imagine your student friend is pretty typical of the age group. Not to excuse it, of course. But we don’t really put much into practical training of our young people, except for individual families that make it a priority.

  • Katy Murphy

    Interesting. Thanks for your thoughts.

    In this case, I sent an email right at the outset. It described the project and listed a number of brainstorming prompts for the column, as well as the column deadline and my contact information.

    Beyond that, do you think it should be the responsibility of a business to spell out what commitment means — and the importance of meeting a deadline?

  • Gordon Danning

    A couple of years ago, a Professor of Education at Cal was supposed to help me with a new class. Apparently, she had a change of heart at the last minute. I say “apparently” because she never told me that; rather, she just stopped returning my phone calls and emails. So, compared to her, the student is a model of courtesy and responsibility.

  • Debora

    I have described this behavior several times on this blog. I tried to hire OUSD high school graduates. I know we have responsible students in our district but so far my experience is that they believe arriving 15 – 20 minutes late is “on time enough.” They do not make eye contact when they speak and are surprised when they are fired because of missed deadlines, late arrivals, early departures and lack of communication even when the expectations are spelled out on a sheet of paper in which each item is initialed and the document is signed.

  • Nextset


    This is a great subject. It is not news.

    I am informed that Eagle Scouts receive special priority when applying for many competitive jobs and such competitive spots a Service Academy seats. A Service Academy graduate friend also told me that the Academies discovered on research that those candidates who have a history of more than one year as a paperboy have significantly superior performance.

    It is really easy to screen for candidates (jobs or any other thing in life) that are most likely to perform well. And don’t think race isn’t a statistically valid factor in separating out the non-performers. And it’s not just jobs either, how about medical compliance in such critical areas as transplant patient (survival rates, etc).

    This is why people will not hire Urban Public School kids or even interview them.

    And the deselection of these kids will continue until the school make meaningful changes in the “let’s keep ’em comfortable” atmosphere in these horrible schools. I don’t see that happening because (remember) these are not schools at all. They are not intended to educate/improve/change the students into something they are not already.

    It’s too bad, really. Serious discipline at the middle school & high school level would (like good dental care, etc) provide many decades of better life for the students. Especially the black and Mexican and lower class Asian students that predominate the CA urban school districts. We don’t give them discipline because we obviously don’t care enough about their futures to make the effort. And we just don’t want to hear them whine. All the adults in my family including the grandparents for some reason just didn’t have a problem with enforcing any rules on my generation. I learned that love includes discipline. The pets behaved also – or else.

    The process of making the student products of these schools more responsible includes punishment for any signs of irresponsibility while in the school programs – up to and including transfer out of any desirable school for persistent failure. And while at it, use of the word failure when the behavior occurs.

    Students can be taught. In little things and big things. I watched one suburban school essentially eliminate tardies with a draconian tardy policy of locking every classroom door at the ring of the tardy bell and suspension of anyone caught outside. I know students can and do comply with policy that is enforced to the hilt. Adolescents really do take training if anybody actually trains them. We don’t in these schools. Better schools, real schools – do.

    Brave New World.

  • Smiley

    Unfortunately, sounds like a great predictor for an OUSD executive officer or administrator.

  • Kim Shipp


    Having teenagers myself, I know it is a work in progress. Children have to be taught responsibility early on and it constantly has to be emphasized to the teenager and young adult.

    I spend a lot of time impressing upon my children to take responsibility for themselves and honor the commitments they make.

    I would tell them if you commit to go to MacDonald’s with someone, and a five star restaurant is offered later for the same day, honor your previous commitment. In other words, don’t slack and disregard what you have committed to.

    Unless you encounter highly motivated teenagers, this is what you are likely to get if there is not some responsible parent/adult reminding and urging that teenager to get the commitment done.

    This is part of parenting and the hard part at that.

    Don’t let it get you down, it is what it is.


  • Katy Murphy

    Although the incident I described was disappointing, I didn’t take it personally or let it depress me (too much). It just made me wonder about societal norms and, well, the future.

    If this is the level of responsibility we’ve come to expect of youth (or American youth), as I’m hearing many of you say, how will they be able to compete for jobs?

  • Michael Siegel

    Katy, your last question is right on point, and stands alone as a statement. Our youth (Oakland youth, in particular) are not able to compete. Unfortunately, even many grads of community colleges and local state schools are not quite able to compete. The type of training that Ms. Shipp describes above is what each student needs: individualized, focused, practical training, reinforced and developed over team. At our Oakland high schools, MetWest does a good job of this, probably because all of the students are required to work in real-world internships as part of their educational plan. At some of the other sites, we no longer emphasize this kind of “vocational” (i.e., practical) education.

  • Debora

    This type of discipline is not a high school skill or even a middle school skill. It’s an elementary school skill. Students who make a committment to be a “junior custodian” in elementary school, meaning they make sure that students are putting their lunch trays, garbage and recycling where they belong is a commitment. If there is an ice cream social the junior custodian must miss the social or arrive late to the social because they have made a commitment to the junior custodian program.

    This is exactly the type of skill that should have been mastered so that middle school and high school students can focus on high level academic work.

    What I hear this group doing is making excuses – these excuses allow students to get off the hook. Mistakes can be made, certainly the young man who let Katy down made a mistake. The lack of moral character showed through loud and clear and the young man did not admit his error and try to make amends. This is what moral people do; they make mistakes, apologize and make amends.

    When we refuse in OUSD to state gloss over the words used, I as an employer must do the dirty work of the harsh words and the firing. I must do the job that was left undone by parents and by teachers who did not say enough is enough. Quite honestly it is a lot of work to continue to give OUSD graduates a chance. I have taken to only interviewing those students who can show sustained volunteer work at school and in the community. It is the only way that I have of assessing persistence, commitment and compassion.

  • Skyline Teacher

    Having taught several of your previous student bloggers, I’d say you’ve been a little spoiled — two that come to mind are two of the most responsible HUMANS I’ve met in my life, much less teenagers.

    In no way excusing the flakiness, I have some questions that seem relevent:

    — Was the person a writer? This may have seemed like an easy task to you but might have turned into a very stressful challenge for the person, who then procrastinated or even lied to themselves that they were responsible for doing it until they could deny it no longer and had run out of time. I did something very similar when I was a teen when a local paper asked me to write about our high school and I BELIEVED I would do it up until the night it was due … and was mortified to find I was unable to do so, total writer’s block. The editor was none too pleased but got somebody to interview me instead at the last second.

    — Were they being paid? The person’s perspective may have been they were doing you something of a favor and thus had a lower level of obligation than you did, since you probably felt, rightfully, you were offering an opportunity. Do they want to be a writer? Is it possible you were putting too many eggs in the basket of an unpaid, unprofessional bunny?

    Overall, though, I think many of you are making huge generalizations about “kids today,” those perennial louses. The teens today are no more flaky than the teens of my era, the eighties, at least.

    Of course, when kids were put into the workforce at age 12 and had to kiss the bosses’ behind just to eat that night their manners were probably impeccable! But now we have an economic system that has no solid place for workers until you’ve spun your wheels for a good 18-30 years.

  • Katy Murphy

    Was the person a writer or an aspiring writer? I don’t know. I know the student appeared to be passionate about the issue, though, and expressed excitement about the opportunity.

    No, this contribution was not paid, and yes, obviously I did put too many eggs in that basket, as we don’t have the student column! It would have been great to include a student voice on an issue that directly affects students; on the other hand, we have so much material that it’s not as though the entire project was riding on one unpaid, unprofessional, recent high school grad.

    And, as I noted in my blog post, next time I’ll have a back up.

  • Nextset

    Debora is right. This kind of flaky behavior is ironed out in grade school at good schools. For example my generation’s Catholic Grade Schools.

    By the time we are dealing with High School Students they are already being sorted by Class and I don’t mean academic.

    By the age of college they are already taking their place in this Brave New World, like with like.

    As some of the employers will tell you, we see them coming.

    If the schools were sterner with these kids they would enjoy much greater social, occupational and economic mobility. To an increasing degree we can see where a student will land in life by 18. The ladders to occupations seem to be starting now in middle school.

    My Los Angeles Jewish friends will tell you that getting the kid into the right grade school is essential to career opportunity. A generation ago I laughed at them, though it was a joke. I don’t laugh at all at them now. I just ask how much and do they take Credit Cards for the tuition..(Frequent Traveler Points!!)

  • J. Peters

    I would bet that this student is not very reliable with his school work either. Having raised teenagers, I can say that there is a lot of pressure for them to be organized – sports, schoolwork, jobs, college applications, etc. Much more difficult now than for previous generations of high schoolers. The only way for them to learn to honor commitments is to let them bear the consequences of not doing so. Better to not commit than to flake out. No excuses.

  • Donna

    For those of you who have ever done volunteer work, especially committee work, whether church, PTA, Scouts or other nonprofits, no doubt you have experience flake-outs among those adults, and it is not because they are OUSD products. The greatest management challenge is when you are working with a person for the first time: You don’t know if you can depend on him or her to follow through without a lot of dogging.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Donna, thanks for injecting some perspective. These are human beings. Humans make decisions, good and bad, every day, and always have. Some humans are flaky, so it is, so shall it be. Many adults don’t make amends, ever, for crimes much worse than this kid’s irritating attitude.

    Yet if a teenager does something flaky or rude, folks on here are ready to write a generation out of the nation will! Sheesh.

    On that note: The so-called millennial generation coming up now is inheriting a ravaged earth, a terrible job market, a broken political system and a celebrity-obsessed, corporate-dominated culture. Who made this? We did — older people.

    Of course, we did good stuff, too, but if our generations — and the schools back then — were so great, how’d everything get so effed up?

    Those in glass houses…