Tuesday, January 23, 2007

"If I don't try, you're the failure!"

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about an article by Mark Prensky that dealt with teachers' responsibility to engage their students (Come on teachers, we've got to make it fun!). The post generated a lot of discussion, including a couple of posts by other bloggers. Some people thought the article was a good one, and some, like me, didn't. You might be shocked to learn that I tend to like comments that agree with me more than those that don't, but there was something that really bothered me about the comments by those who liked the Prensky article. They seemed to think that those of us who didn't like the article don't believe we have a responsibility to try to engage all of our students. For example, one commentator said this:

"I sympathize with Fermoyle's resentment, I do. I just don't find the It's-not-in-my-job-description argument as compelling as I did last year. If it brings about higher student achievement, and especially if It takes place during my contractual hours, then the burden is on me to explain why It isn't in my job description."

I want to make it absolutely clear that I DO believe that trying to engage as many kids as I possibly can IS a part of my job, and I hope my record proves it. For example, with the encouragement of our special education teachers, I developed a Basic American History class for kids who have a difficult time in social studies. As part of that process, I wrote my own textbook for those kids. That was so successful that I ended up writing another one for my regular American History classes. Believe me, that took some time and effort, but I did it because I wanted to get my students to actually read the assignments that I gave them. Despite initial reservations, I learned all I could about cooperative learning, and I now use that once or twice a week. I'm constantly trying to create new assignments that I hope will grab more kids. I've even handed out questionnaires to my students which gave them the chance to tell me which class activities they found most and least enjoyable, and which ones helped them learn the most. Those are things that I do, and most teachers are doing things comparable to that. I mean who wants to stand up there in front of classes and feel like you're boring 150 people to tears every day? Any teacher who is willing to put up with that without trying to do something about it doesn't belong in this business. And if they aren't willing to leave voluntarily, they should be out the door with bootprints on their backsides.

Back in the early 1990s, I incorporated outcome-based education into my classes, which I think is incredibly demanding on teachers. It was one day during that period when I had an epiphany. (You can go ahead and shout "Hallelujah!" if you'd like.) I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off, trying to make sure that kids who had passed a test had enrichment activities to do, and also trying to make sure that kids who had failed the test (they needed to earn at least a C) understood the corrective assignment they were supposed to do, so they could pass the test when they re-took it. When I paused to look around the room, I realized that while I was working my backside off, most of my non-performers--the very kids who had the most to gain from this system of learning--were doing almost nothing to help themselves. It occurred to me that this was backwards. The wrong person was doing all the work.

I think it's reasonable to say that when teachers are making a real effort to engage their students, the responsibility for trying to learn should lie with the students. But we have been brainwashed. We have been taught to blame ourselves when students refuse to try. It sounds so noble for a teacher to say, "If any of my students fail, then I have failed," but I'm convinced that this is actually harmful. An example I used in the book I wrote illustrates just where this "nobility" is getting us.

I attended a workshop in which the presenter, a teacher-turned-college-professor, told the story of a sixth grade girl with whom he had worked. The girl had refused to do a required assignment. The presenter said he tried everything he could to encourage her, but she wouldn't do it. Finally, he asked her why she wouldn't just give it a try. She told him, "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."

Now, where could this young girl have learned this? She learned it from our society, but she also learned it from us. I know that I have been hearing that message for thirty or forty years, and we have bought into it. The presenter, who was a fine man and a good teacher, closed this story by saying, "And you know, she was right." As I looked around that room, many of the teachers were nodding their heads. How in the world could we come to that ridiculous conclusion?

If that same young girl brought her math assignment home, and her mother, rather than just helping her, actually did the assignment for her, would we call that good parenting? I think most of us would say that doing the math assignment was the girl's responsibility, and we would even say that the mother had served her poorly by assuming the responsibility for her. She would have taught her daughter that whenever something gets a little bit difficult, someone else will take care of it for her. Then why do we view it as "noble" when we, as teachers, constantly send the message that it is our failure when students refuse to try? When we do that we are teaching them that if something gets a little bit difficult, and they don't want to make the effort, it will always be somebody else's fault.

When we, as teachers, do things to engage more kids we will reach some, but we need to face the fact that we won't reach them all. Generally speaking, no matter what we do, performers work and non-performers don't. Over the years I have found that the students who want to lay their heads on their desks when I show a video are the same ones who don't take notes when I conduct a lecture-discussion. The students who become albatrosses around the necks of their group-mates when we do cooperative learning, are the same students who do nothing when we work individually. When I give kids a chance to do something artistic for extra credit, it is the the workers--the kids who do all the other assignments--who most often take advantage of that. I know there are exceptions, but I simply do not buy the idea that most non-performers make such a miserable effort because teachers haven't tried hard enough to reach them. So when Marc Prensky sympathetically portrays some kid sitting in the back row with headphones and a T-shirt that says "It's not ADD, I'm just not listening!" challenging the teacher to engage him or he'll be enraged, you'll have to forgive me if I find that a little nauseating.

There is no question about it--teachers have an obligation to work hard and to try to engage their students. But there is also no question that students have the obligation to try to learn, even if they aren't inspired by every assignment in every class. When we take that responsibility from them, we aren't being noble; we are being foolish and doing a disservice to our communities, our students, and ourselves.

19 Comments:

Anonymous Rose said...

Wow. You go Dennis!!!!

1/23/2007 6:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Blame the parents. I've had female patients in particular who did poorly in school because their parents convinced them they were innately incompetent, needed someone to take care of them, and couldn't handle failure.

1/24/2007 5:03 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"I think most of us would say that doing the math assignment was the girl's responsibility, and we would even say that the mother had served her poorly by assuming the responsibility for her."

I'd say you'd be shocked by how often this occurs, but come to think of it, you probably wouldn't be. I just know it really, really annoyed me when I found out in high school that some students were having their work done for them.

However, I'm going to say it's still your responsibility, Dennis. Or, rather, it's the responsibility of educators (perhaps not teachers, but since you defend public education rather than public school teachers, that's the category I'd put you in). If you're going to guide and improve public education, you need to find the method of doing it.

To a certain extent I think your suggestion of teachers being able to remove students is a good one (though I can see issues with it). I think the idea of tying real-world benefits like driver's permits with education is a very good one.

If the parents need to be improved for the sake of education, you should determine how and advocate it. If you just complain that parents aren't taking responsibility without giving any solution, you're not actually adding anything of value (hence my onetime "whining" comment, which I admit was somewhat opprobrious, though I think not entirely inaccurate).

I'm of the opinion that schools also need improvement. Too many teachers are complacent. I enjoy reading the threestandarddeviationstotheleft blog, and though a lot of it is amusing it also points out the complaints he has of other teachers. Things like students passing despite missing 30% of their classes and tests. A video on youtube bemoans the "inconvenient truth" of constructive math education.

1/24/2007 8:57 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you, Rose, and Elizabeth, I certainly wouldn't argue with you.

Crypticlife, I don't have a lot of disagreement with what you've said. Regarding parents, my use of the mother in this post was just for the purpose of creating an analogy. It's unfortunate that we focus so much on bad parents, because most of the ones I've dealt with have been pretty good. My "whining" about parents is often in response to things like the portrayal of parents in general as demanding higher standards in education and the schools refusing to cooperate. Politicians and the media often present things that way, and that is a bunch of baloney. I don't have a solution for poor parenting, however. It is just something extra that we have to try to overcome, and it is often ignrored by people who criticize public schools.

I agree with you that public schools can and should improve. But I think it's fair to say that you and I have different ideas about how that can best be accomplished. Unless I'm mistaken, you are a "choice" man, and I definitely am not. I'm repeating myself to you, but I'll say this anyway. I think the biggest problem we have is that we are far too tolerant of poor effort and poor behavior, and I think the most effective thing we could do to improve the job we do is to address that. The problem is that much of our tolerance has been forced on us by court decisions and legislation. (Oh, man! I hope Steven doesn't read this!) The next thing we could do is to give schools more ability to keep their best teachers and get rid of their worst ones. Some teachers do get complacent, and that is usually at least partially because they are protected by a seniority system. I believe you know how I feel about that.

1/24/2007 5:13 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

Dennis, I did read this (I'm taking a break), but what I say may surprise you.

You are correct that legislation and court decisions are forcing more and more on schools, and I believe this is only going to get worse as long as the government funds and operates the schools, especially since it seems that the federal government is getting more and more involved in education. That is just the natural progression of education controlled by the government.

You are also correct that politicians haven't got a clue. But so long as education is public, the politicians and their bureaucrats will make the rules, and teachers will have to live by them. This is a big reason why I oppose public education. Education is too important to leave the politicians in charge of it. And the thought of the government having the responsibility of teaching children how or what to think should scare anyone. Education should be as individualized as possible. It honestly puzzles me why teachers who care about children would want this situation to continue.

As for bad parenting, the more people are taught that they should rely on the government, the less they will want to do for themselves. Given human nature, that should be expected. I'm sure that many parents think, "Why should I put out the effort required to educate my children, when the government (public schools) will do it for me?"

1/24/2007 7:35 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

As for bad parenting, the more people are taught that they should rely on the government, the less they will want to do for themselves. Given human nature, that should be expected. I'm sure that many parents think, "Why should I put out the effort required to educate my children, when the government (public schools) will do it for me?"

Actually, Steven, many parents think "why should I educate my children, when I'm uneducated myself, don't really give a damn about my kids or anybody else, and don't see the value in education anyway?" They'd think that no matter what happened to the public schools.

1/25/2007 4:37 AM  
Anonymous steven said...

Michael, yours is the kind of attitude that really irritates me. You seem to be saying, "Most other people are so lazy and incompetent that they have to have big brother (government) to keep them in line." And I bet you don't include yourself in that category.

1/25/2007 5:59 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Steven, your attitude (and forgive me if I'm misreading you) seems to be, "Every man for himself." My attitude is that extreme libertarianism, such as you espouse in relation to education, is at best mistaken, and at worst fundamentally immoral and self-centered.

I like the idea of lots of competition in education, so long as it includes public schools ("government schools" is a pejorative that indicates a hostility to this democratic republic of ours).

1/25/2007 7:33 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Steven, I believe that many things done by courts and legislatures have hurt public education, but I have no desire to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

1/25/2007 5:30 PM  
Anonymous steven said...

Every man for himself? I would say sometimes yes, most of the time no. If someone wants to be left alone then I would leave them alone. People who think as I do favor individualism over collectivism and voluntary interaction over coercion. We happen to respect each person's right to self-determination and the idea of self-ownership of ourselves. If thinking this way is immoral, than I am immoral.

My feeling is that most educators are just protecting their turf and their way of life, regardless of the affect it has on others. Now that is what I would call self-centered, Michael. But I also recognize it as a normal part of human nature, and I certainly wouldn't condemn educators for it. It is not up to educators to change the system in the way I think it needs to be changed. It is up to the public to see that it gets changed.

Sorry, Dennis. I just had to get that off my chest. I'll get back to work and leave you alone for a while.

1/26/2007 4:43 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Steven, in that way I have to admit that I'm kind of like the kids. Whenever I see that you or Crypticlife have left a comment, I cringe--because I know I'm going to have to think.

1/26/2007 5:14 AM  
Anonymous steven said...

Dennis, please don't be offended by what I said. That's not the way I intended it. We just have such a different outlook on things.

1/26/2007 6:28 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Not at all, Steven. I think you might be reading my "sense of humor" wrong--you certainly wouldn't be the first. Like I said, your comments make me think. That's probably a good thing, but it can also give me a headache.

1/26/2007 7:30 AM  
Blogger the anonymous teacher said...

Dennis, First off, in my absence from blog world, I've missed reading your blog.

Second off, I have to say that I couldn't agree with you more on this post. This idea of not being able to reach all students is one I've learned from you. (And I mean that in a good way!!)
I came into this whole teaching thing thinking I could reach them all...I thought if I worked hard enough, I could get them all to succeed. This simply isn't feasible. At some point students have to become responsible for their own education, and there comes a point when we push so hard that we are no longer helping them, but enabling them.
Our job is not only to give them academic knowlege but also to shape them. I may be taking the job description a bit too far, but I believe when we spend eight hours a day with them, we have to be somewhat responsible for their moral character, and what kind of people are we producing when we allow them to think that someone else is responsible for their actions??
Do I think we should go above and beyond to reach students?? Of course. I think through our blog discussions you know that I believe in jumping through hoops for my kids. But when a child tells me he can't remember to do the assignment because he has ADD or when the little girl says to her teacher she won't do the assignment because that puts the failure on the teacher, my hoop-jumping stops. At some point we have to teach students inner drive and self-discipline.
I think my overdose of coffee has made this response rather jumpy, but I hope I got my point across...

1/28/2007 9:34 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

AT, your comment makes me feel about as good as any comment I've seen. Thank you!! And you have been missed!

1/29/2007 3:21 PM  
Anonymous School Teacher said...

Amen Dennis. I just so happened to stumble upon your site and I couldn't have said what you did more pointedly, yet eloquently.

I've said so many times, that kids seem to want us to stand up and entertain them. I'm not MySpace, YouTube, a PSP or an iPod.

I even had a student ask me, why do you try to help people who don't want to be helped. Working with troubled youth, I've learned and accepted the fact that can't and won't reach all of my students.

Thanks for saying what so many of us feel.

2/05/2007 1:36 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you ST. Your comment makes me feel very good, because I really have been trying to express what I think a lot of other teachers are feeling. There are a lot of people in the general public who think they understand what happens in our classrooms, but I'm convinced that people who don't do what we do have little idea of what it's like.

2/05/2007 4:25 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you ST. Your comment makes me feel very good, because I really have been trying to express what I think a lot of other teachers are feeling. There are a lot of people in the general public who think they understand what happens in our classrooms, but I'm convinced that people who don't do what we do have little idea of what it's like.

2/05/2007 4:26 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Thank you ST. Your comment makes me feel very good, because I really have been trying to express what I think a lot of other teachers are feeling. There are a lot of people in the general public who think they understand what happens in our classrooms, but I'm convinced that people who don't do what we do have little idea of what it's like.

2/05/2007 4:26 PM  

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