PESPD'S MYTH #1: If a Student Fails, The Teacher Has Failed
I'm pretty sure the first time I heard this one was in one of my education classes back in my undergrad days, but that's so long ago and my education classes were so unmemorable that I can't swear to it. It is something every teacher has heard, though, and many teachers think they're supposed to believe it. I understand that when a workshop presenter or education professor says something like this, they are trying to make a point that any good teacher would agree with--we should do whatever we can to reach every student that we can. The problem with this cliche' is that some teachers think they must buy into it completely and that they are uncaring if they don't. And buying into this cliche' completely would be a good way to be driven out of the profession or to a nervous breakdown. No matter how good you are at something, it's hard to stick with it if you constantly feel like you're failing.
Now some people outside of the teaching profession have come to believe this myth, too--even some students. A few years ago I attended a workshop in which the presenter, a teacher-turned-college-professor told a story about a seventh grade girl with whom he had worked. The girl had refused to do a required assignment. The presenter said he tried everything he could think of to encourage her, but she wouldn't do it. Finally, he asked her why she wouldn't just give it a try. She replied, "Because if I try, it won't be very good, and I'll be a failure; but if I don't try, then you're the failure."
I'm not sure which is worse: the fact that this myth has become so widespread that some kids believe it, or the fact that so many teachers at that workshop nodded their head in agreement with the young girl. Here was a case where the teacher did everything a good teacher should do. He gave that student every opportunity to try to be successful. If this sounds harsh, I'm sorry, but that young girl had it backwards--the teacher was not the failure; she was.
This story points out how harmful it can be when teachers and schools take upon themselves responsibilities that are actually the students. It IS our responsibility to give kids opportunities. It is also our responsibility to do whatever we can to motivate and encourage them, and I have read some blogs by teachers who seem incredibly gifted at this. It is my personal belief that it's my responsibility to make it possible for every student I have to be successful. However, it IS DEFINITELY NOT our responsibility to MAKE THEM learn. At some point, students have to make the decision to do that themselves. One of the biggest problems in education today is the accepted idea that the primary responsibility for learning lies with somebody other than the student.
If you give me a difficult job to do, but a job that I am capable of doing; and you make it clear to me that it is my responsibility, I'm going to get that job done. On the other hand, if you give me subtle messages that it's really somebody else's fault if I fail, there's a much greater chance that I'll fail. Yet that is the message that many kids are getting today, and it's one reason why so many public school kids are non-performers. We need to make it crystal clear that when a student fails because he didn't try, there is only one person at whom fingers are going to be pointed, and that person is not going to be the teacher. We need to make it clear that students, more than anyone else, are responsible for their own learning.