Who is most responsible for a student's education?
In the a Teacher Update from teachermagazine.org on September 28, a post by TMAO was featured. TMAO's post was about teacher education, and it was his last paragraph that really caught my attention:
In the end though, the most valuable knowledge ed schools and certificationTMAO made a comment in this vein during the summer, and I wrote that he must be either "stupid or ignorant." Although using language like that would probably qualify me to run for public office in this campaign season, treating someone I disagreed with that way actually was an act of stupidity on my part. So let me put it this way: When TMAO says that any failure is the teacher's failure, I completely disagree. I think such statements are wrong, and I think they are harmful.
programs could instill is the fact that as a teacher it is your responsibility
to promote student achievement, and any failure to do so is your failure. It's
not the fault of parents, young people, society, Grand Theft Auto: San Andres,
neo-conservative economic policies, peer pressure, the events that occurred last
week at the corner liquor store, or myspace. As a teacher you are more powerful
than any of those things, and it's high time to start acting like it.
There is no question that teachers are very important in the education of any student, but they are not the only ones who play a role. Parents play a role, society plays a role, and so do the student's neighborhood and his friends. But the person who plays the most important role in any student's learning is the student himself (or herself).
I disagree with TMAO, so I'm tempted to accuse him of arrogance when he claims that teachers have so much power, but that would be dishonest. I suspect that his statement actually reflects the positive attitude of a teacher who probably works very hard. TMAO wants his kids to learn, and he is unwilling to accept any excuses--poverty, upbringing, bad neighborhoods, etc.-- for their not learning, and he is willing to take total responsibility for making that happen. Who can criticize him for that? But it is harmful to excuse parents and society from their responsibilities in the education of our students, and it is harmful to lead anymore of the public to believe that anytime students don't learn it is the school's fault.
The problem with TMAO's theory is that in order for it to be true, we would have to be able to MAKE students learn. We can't do that. We can try to make it possible for every student to learn (and even that isn't easy), we can encourage, and we can motivate. But we can't MAKE any student learn. There has to be some willingness to do that by the student himself, and sometimes that willingness just isn't there.
Part of our different beliefs on this might come from our different perspectives. TMAO works with special education and ELL middle school kids, and if I understand correctly, he has about sixty of them. I have 150 high school kids every day. Believe me, I am not implying that I have a tougher job than TMAO, but because of the numbers and the grade level of his students, I can see where he might feel more able to reach all of his students than I do.
At the high school level, no matter what teachers do, student learning requires that they do some work. I don't think I am alone when I say that every year there are some of my students who simply won't work. This probably becomes most evident at the high school level where more of that work has to be done outside of class, but I suspect that it is true to some degree at every level.
If I understand him correctly, TMAO is saying that it is entirely the teacher's fault anytime a student doesn't learn. Let's follow that thought to its logical conclusion. That must mean that it is entirely to the teacher's credit anytime a student does learn and succeeds. I think that's a ridiculous idea. Our school has former students who are now doctors and lawyers, and one of our students a few years ago earned a perfect score on her SAT. Although our school deserves some credit for providing those young people with opportunities, there is no question that most of the credit for their success belongs to them. They are the ones who did the countless hours of work and made the sacrifices necessary to acqure the learning that enabled them to do so well. And just as they deserve most of the credit for their own success, those who did not do nearly as well as they could have in school deserve most of the blame for their own failures.
If TMAO is saying that teachers should not lower expectations for students simply because they face difficult circumstances in their lives, I agree. If he's saying we should work as hard as we can to reach every student we have, I agree again. But he seems to be saying that teachers have the power to do it all by themselves, and that I totally disagree with. I know that I need a lot of help in educating my students. I'm reaching a lot of my students now, but there are still too many that I'm not getting to. If I'm going to reach more of them, I could use more help from our society, I need more help from their parents, I absolutely have to have more help from those kids who seem so unwilling to help themselves.