Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Teaching isn't a 50-50 Split

Pretend for a moment that I'm a parachute instructor. I'm going to show you how to pack your parachute, jump out of a plane and, and make a safe landing. Now I want you to do all of this yourself, flawlessly of course. You will also need to provide your own plane and parachute. Now don't try and complain because I'm going 50-50 with you. I'm meeting you halfway aren't I? I showed you how to do it, so now it's your turn. Shouldn't you have the gumption and determination to pick up your end of the slack and get with the program?

This sounds crazy, but we ask this of our students all the time, and when our students jump out of the plane and reach terminal velocity because they didn't pack their own parachute correctly, then we blame them for their failure. Why, it's not my fault, we intone, we did after all show them how to do it.

Teaching should never be about equity of effort and work. There should never be a tally sheet or ledger where we demand that students do equal work. Students learn and move at their own pace. They also develop self-reliance and self-motivation at their own pace too. It's not that we should do 100 percent of the work, but if we go 90 and they go 10, then that's fine if 10 is all they can go.

It is not a student's job to get an education. It's their opportunity to learn. As teachers, it is our jobs to show our students the benefits of learning and that may mean from time to time the effortload is uneven. Let's face it, there will be many days when we are putting in more effort than our students.

I'm not espousing a system where everyone passes or even a system without accountability, but rather a system where student potential is taken into account. It's easy to write a student off and say that it's not worth your time and effort to help them with their essays or provide a bit more structure on an assignment. It's easy to refuse a student the chance to make up their work and let them fail the semester. It's easy to let a student fall through the cracks. But it's also easy to catch them before they fall. It's easy to take some initiative and work out an individualized education plan. It's easy to give a damn about the eventual success of your students even though it seems as if they are failing in all aspects of their life, including your class.

Let me provide an example. For 7th grade, I crafted an assignment where my students had to write instructions for a skill they would present. This could be anything from how to tie your shoes, to how to assemble a clarinet. One of my students who struggles both in my class and socially asked if she could show how to make pizza. Now this is a student who I haven't had the best rapport with. At times she's told me she's hated my class, the reading, and everyone else. During my second week teaching, she blew up in the classroom and being the green teacher I was, I took her to the principal's office. I didn't know how to handle it. Anyway, I told the student that she could make pizza. She considered this for a moment and said that she only had cheese and a baking sheet. I thought about it and then told her to write down the other ingredients and I'd get them myself.

After class, I realized that this was an assignment that my troubled student seemed interested in. I had been accustom to listening to her yell "This is boring!" After school, I went and bought the stuff myself and also talked with another teacher in the school to see if I could flop rooms with her because her classroom had an oven and mine didn't.

The day of the presentation rolled around and the student not only presented the recipe but got some of her classmates involved in the process as well. The relationship with her classmates is not very good, but this event seemed to help things a little bit.

In any case, opportunities like this don't always present themselves, but when they do come about, it's best to be as accommodating as possible. I could have just as easily as said, "It's your responsibility to get all the ingredients and arrange a room. However, that would have been irresponsible of me. The student had already expressed what she was capable of doing and for her sake, I picked up the slack. By doing this, she eventually went above and beyond what was called for.

Now it's not always going to work out this way. I've been burned by students before in the past, but you live and learn. I try to give students the benefit of the doubt and even when they burn me, I try to give them the benefit of the doubt again, a chance to show that they've grown and changed. I suppose this means from time to time students will take advantage of me and my classroom. But it is my hope that students will also take advantage of the opportunity and change the 10-90 split from their 10 and my 90 to their 90 and my 10.

No comments: