Who Said Learning Was Easy? Part 1

When did the stakes get so high for schools? When did we start putting so much responsibility on teachers for the success of our youth and so little responsibility on the youth themselves?

When a student in my classes is unsuccessful, the discussion immediately turns to what I can, as a teacher, do to accommodate the needs of the failing/struggling student, instead of how the student can change their behavior in order to be more successful. By no means should teachers be removed from all responsibility, but students should absolutely be held accountable for their own academic success.

My own high school experience (not all that long ago as I graduated from high school in 2001) did not mirror the above situation at all. Yes, there was absolutely an expectation that my teachers should do a quality job of teaching me, but my parents were also informed enough to send me to a good school, and I recognized that success was completely my responsibility.  The responsibility did not fall solely to my teacher. My freshman year of high school, I learned the hard way that I wasn’t entitled to excellent teachers and only doing interesting and authentic assignments. My transcript suffered, but I learned from that experience and changed my own behavior so as not to repeat the same mistake twice.

It was not the mission of my teachers to make class fun, motivating, or particularly interesting. Those were bonuses of a particularly high quality class. For much of my high school career, class was class, and just like eating your veggies or doing your chores, it was something that you did because you were supposed to. You go to school, and to be successful after school, you need to be successful in school. If I didn’t like math that was my problem; I’d better still pass it regardless. There was no discussion of talking to the teacher about why or how to make things different because I wasn’t interested in the class or didn’t do my work.

When did society lose the value of individual student responsibility? When did a student’s success fall at the feet of the teacher instead of the student (let alone the parents)? I’ve had countless emails, meetings, and discussions with parents, students, and counselors asking me to change my standards by excusing assignments, modifying assignments, or giving extensions because little Joey or Susie is “having a tough time right now, but they’ll do all their work in the future,” only to have the same conversation a month or two later when nothing has changed.

Even more frustrating, is when a student attempts to shed responsibility because “the teacher only told them when it was due once, and they forgot.”  An argument I have heard far too often.

I respect the idea of individual educational advantage. Some students enter the public school system significantly advantaged over other students. There is no doubt about that. At the same time I watch students work diligently to overcome their disadvantages and learn despite significant barriers while students with every advantage fritter away their opportunities. It takes hard work to be successful regardless of your starting point. When did we lose sight of that?

To use a sports analogy if you are trailing someone in a race you have to run faster than the person ahead of you in order to overtake them. If the person in front of you had a head start you may have to run significantly faster, but if you both continue running at the same pace they will always stay ahead of you. The same is true when it comes to educational advantage. If you are a disadvantaged student you have to work harder to overcome the barriers that were placed in your life through no fault of your own.

Is it fair? No. Is it easy? Of course not. Does it work? Yes.

My point, however, is not limited to students who are academically disadvantaged. Those students who are academically advantaged have just as much need to learn the value of hard work and self-control in order to be happy and productive upon graduation, regardless of their goals for college or employment.

When we hold teachers accountable for the success of every student in their class (while continually increasing caseloads without increasing compensation) we’ve removed individual responsibility from the student while constantly increasing the burden on the teacher.  . If I have students who are not engaging with my class it is definitely my responsibility to try and make class work for them, just as they have a responsibility to engage with any material they wish to learn.

No matter how hard I try, no matter how motivating I want to be, I cannot and will not pick up a pen and write an essay for a student. I cannot read a book for them, and I cannot make them think. They have to want it. I can do everything in my power to make a student see the value of their work through transparency and contextualization, but a student who is actively choosing not to learn will not learn. My pedagogical ability is not going to be the deciding factor. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb: teachers open doors, but it is the students’ responsibility to walk through them.

We need to bring individual responsibility back into public education. The consequences are too severe not to. By regularly spoon-feeding assignments to students that are precisely targeted to their academic ability, we teach them that there is no significant challenge to life and we tell them we think they are only capable of progressing by baby steps. We may teach them how to write a structured paragraph, but we forget to teach them to work hard and overcome challenge. A student who doesn’t know how to work hard easily becomes an adult who does not know how to work hard and a country of adults incapable of working hard does not bode well for our cumulative future success.

Dead Prez: They Schools (NSFW – Lots of Swears)

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