March 3, 2010
I didn’t have the right tie. I needed something that said “professional” but didn’t say “uptight.” The one with the black and white pattern was out. It looked too much like an artists’ impression of a Higgs boson. I finally went with a dark blue tie that, while simple, wasn’t so simple as to make the students think I was a total square. Or that I know what “square” meant. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of twenty new adults. Some were frustrated. I could see it in their eyes. Deer in the headlights. I’m sure I had the same look. I always did on the first day.
We learn from others. Sometimes we master a skill. Sometimes they give us a nice little diploma or a plaque that tells the world we’re certified at something. Congrats! You passed high school! You can practice law! Open up a medical practice!
We owe our teachers. But how much is the student’s work and how much is the teacher doing his or her job? We’d like to think a great teacher can make any student learn. Every parent would love to know every teacher is a certified expert in a particular field, that hours of training and years of education have produced something greater than a teacher, a metahuman capable of virtually downloading the knowledge into a student’s head.
Oh, if only this were true.
Sometimes, teachers don’t do their job, and sometimes they have to face the consequences. A school district in Rhode Island recently fired every teacher in the town’s only high school. All of the teachers. And some staff.
I’ve actually gotten into heated arguments with fellow educators over how much responsibility a teacher holds in his or her classroom. If a student fails, does the responsibility rest with the teacher or the pupil? If I can’t teach someone how to properly conjugate verbs, is it that I’m not explaining it properly, or does the student not want to be there?
Or maybe they have a case of the dumb.
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Three weeks in. It wasn’t the first class I taught, but I could already see them struggling. I could name four or five I knew would pass. They weren’t doing great at that point, but they had drive and they wanted to learn.
Others didn’t care. They talked while I lectured. They didn’t contribute to the group work in class. More than once, they asked for breaks because they forgot their homework. No drive. I tried to teach, but focusing too much attention on them would have denied the ones who did want to succeed of the opportunity to actually learn.
It was academic triage. There was blood on the floor.
My mother’s been a teacher for years, and until I entered education, I had no idea just how difficult it is to really teach. You have to be a combination friend, drill instructor, mentor, and listener. You can’t have too heavy a hand or you’ll be labeled a tyrant and inspire contempt. If you’re too soft and become everyone’s friend, you will not keep control over a single pupil, let alone a full classroom.
You need to be human, yet more than human.
Which was the case for the Rhode Island high school? It’s hard to tell. I believe, firmly believe, that anyone can learn any subject given enough time. People are, however, inclined towards certain subjects. I do better with language. Not so hot at math, but I do great at physics, mostly because I think of it in poetic terms. Others are musically inclined and some have a talent for languages. That’s great, but if pushed, most of us can learn enough to pass PE, music classes, and English. If we know how to learn, we can absorb almost any kind of knowledge.
Without knowing more, it’s difficult to say what happened in Rhode Island. If the students were failing due to one or two subjects or classes, it’s likely the teachers were to blame. If they failed every course, it could be one or both.
Midterms came and went. Five good grades. Average, but certainly better than before. The Five asked questions. They talked to me. They got help outside of class. Public school didn’t prepare them for college. Not really. They knew how to follow format, but those rules didn’t apply in the real world. Slowly, they opened themselves to new ideas, new ways of thinking. Writing was a chore, but it was something they could change.
Others went through the motions. They never wanted to do their best, just enough to pass, but that wasn’t enough. Not with me.
When I once mentioned that it was impossible to teach someone who didn’t want to learn, a fellow educator proceeded to explain for five minutes why I was dead wrong. A good teacher could teach anyone, she said with the kind of certainty you usually hear from a preacher on Sunday. A teacher shouldn’t blame the students any more than an artist should blame the instruments.
That sounds fine, and it does make the teacher sound like a superhuman who can do anything, but reality is much more different.
First of all, as regular readers can probably guess, I’m of the opinion that children are neither innocent nor blank slates. They have goals, agendas, and background. They have personalities. They know what they want, and although they lack experience, they’re far from innocent. No such thing.
There are three kinds of students. The first kind includes the ones who listen to the teacher and do what he or she says. They do their work, pay attention, and are what you’d call the “average” student. The second type includes the ones that learn in spite of their education. Trust me on this: Texas public schools are a bit of joke. Standards and regulations make it impossible to properly teach anything meaningful. It’s likely the same all over the country, but I was lucky enough to have a handful of teachers that pushed me to learn despite my education, as Mark Twain once said. Finally, the last group has the students who want to do the bare minimum to pass. They don’t even want to be average.
School works both ways. If you have someone to guide you, someone who wants to teach, just apply yourself. Ask questions. If the teacher won’t do this, pick up the slack yourself. And if you happen to have a teacher who wants to teach and you put forth the effort, you’ll have an experience you’ll never forget.
The halls smelled like winter. Every time someone opened a door, the cold air killed the heat. For a few moments, the smell of students crammed into the few computer labs was gone, replaced with the cool scent of dirt and desert. By the time my class was full, I looked around. Everyone was nervous. I knew how it would end. The next three hours would be the final page in the book. They helped write it. They edited their parts, their dialogue. I gave them the paper and told them how the story could end.
If they didn’t write it with the tools I gave them, I would write it for them.
I have a job to do when I work with a student. I do my job and I’ve never had a student who wanted to learn not do well. I’ve also dropped the ball. I haven’t explained things correctly, but I’ve always tried my best. While I have a sense of humor about life, I do take my work seriously.
I’ve thanked my teachers. The real teachers.