"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.