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Failing Arrogance

Posted on 2015.12.16 at 19:11
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I really try to keep arrogance in check because I know I do not have all the answers and there are many valid perspectives. However...

Background: I teach in an urban district with most students non-English natives and living in high poverty. We currently have 50% of students failing one or more subject. The staff recently had a meeting that, since I teach in six buildings, I was blessedly unable to attend. The notes we received of the discussion were mostly points about the challenges of teaching "these" students and how poor their work habits and attitudes are. This is my response.

Stop focusing on the outcome for it will only beget the same results. If you were to focus on growth and process, the desired outcome would result. However, this requires you have a few things in place. Namely, that you have built the rapport with the students to guide them through the uncomfortable process of growth AND you accept responsibility as their teacher to bring them up to the standard. We complain students are failing, but honestly now...is it really the students failing to do their job?

Yes, there are the few students who do not care but I assure you they are far rarer than you want to believe. I personally have never met one, but I have met many who believe they do not deserve a different outcome. If you can't see this, you won't ever reach your outcome with "these" students. And I use "these" because when you say "our" you feel no true responsibility. And before you start, let me set the record straight right here: your responsibility as their teacher is not the same as holding students accountable.

First, let's stop bitching about what is wrong with the kids and what they aren't doing. Do you seriously believe the students are too stupid to succeed or realize they are failing? Or do you believe they just are bad seeds that don't give two fucks about anything? How about we start by looking at what they succeed at and figure out why, what motivates them in that class, how are they able to wrap their head around that but not your coursework? Yes, they may like that class better...but WHY? Have you sat in that class to see how it is taught? Have you asked questions to that teacher about how they are reaching their students?

My guess is no. You may not even realize that the student CAN be successful at something beyond your class. Which is where you need to start; developing positive rapport with students. This does not mean you are their friend, nor does it mean you are a slave driver. It means you have acknowledged who that student is as a person and communicate with them as such. Let's face it, how do YOU respond when the district imposes some new initiative vs. someone you respect and have a bond with asking you to take on a challenge? This isn't a kid or adult thing; it's a HUMAN thing.

Establishing rapport will force you to have to improve communication and start understanding that student as an individual. The greatest threat to communication is the illusion that it has happened. We've all been there and thought we taught that lesson but it wasn't actually learned. Well, as much as it pisses me off it's still MY fault if it wasn't learned. Blaming the student tells them it's their fault and they can't learn it. And no, they won't come crying to you when it happens, but not all wounds are visible. A student who does not trust you will not work for you. The only difference between success and not, in this respect, is the lowest level of effort the student will exert to make you shut up.

Once rapport is established, you must begin to tear down their defenses. This does not happen by force or they will shut down. You must guide them to see what they do not know. Initially this will deflate them and they will want to give up. This is the second place many teachers give up. What they are really telling you is "I'm scared to fail you." This comes from previous failures on the teacher's part to bring them up to the expectation. They have had the expectations repeatedly lowered, convincing them they are incapable of meeting it. At this point you must rebuild their self-esteem through success. It is exhausting, it is painful, but it is imperative that you bring them up to the standard you set. Or that you make it well known and explain how it was your fault. (And don't do it again.)

At this point, start to look at how you are teaching things. Are you really scaffolding things correctly? Or are you expecting them to become competent at writing without teaching them grammar? If they don't know what a direct object is, how do they know if they are using it properly? You see, music is not my only degree. Granted many people think because I teach music that I do not hold one at all, not realizing I may be certified to teach their subject as well as music. Language is not acquired the way it is being taught and THAT is why they are not improving. You cannot keep cramming the same thing down their throats and expect different results.

Most people buckle under the expectation either because they do not know how to teach to it or because they start to believe the students cannot meet it along with the students. I ask you, how must that feel for the student when they realize you no longer think they can achieve what you originally said they could?

Talking about it isn't going to fix it; talking to the parents or the students isn't going to fix it; focusing on what isn't won't fix it either. Because we aren't focusing on the actual problem: the learned helplessness to hide insecurities or distract from the bigger issue. They are doing exactly what our government does; obsfucate until it is believed.

To be blunt, the students are failing because the teachers are failing them. They are more concerned with where students aren't than where they are; more concerned with passing the test than the skills to achieve; more concerned with the excuses made than eliminating them; more concerned with looking good than doing the right thing; more concerned with complaining than listening; more concerned with the right answer than the thinking that brought them to the wrong one; more concerned with only one answer than realizing life isn't multiple choice; more concerned with how they feel and what they are experiencing than what the student is feeling and experiencing; and more concerned with a number/grade than with growth. They are failing because of you.

That isn't to say we don't have an overwhelming amount of crap to deal with day in and out and only get asked to jump through more ridiculous hoops. However, to the student those hoops don't matter; what matters to them is their experience in your class. No one is perfect, but we cannot let the challenges become excuses or we have already lost...and the cost is far too great for it damages countless lives and enslaves them in mediocrity and despair.

If you want to stop students from failing, build the relationships and communication, scaffold your lessons for success and push them towards that standard and when you panic in fear they won't reach it that is when you MUST believe in them. When you do and you realize you just pushed them off the proverbial branch it is scary to watch as they falter and fall. But even if they fall, always always always pick them up and push them again. After all, failure is not such a bad thing IF you teach them how to grow from it. The day they fly you will realize how terrifying the power you have over them truly is and just how wrong you were to ever decide that was all a student was capable of achieving.

There are no failures in this world, just people who had someone who believed in them enough to push them off that branch and kept them floating long enough that they finally stretched their wings and really did fly. Arrogant or not, I believe not just in words but in action. Stop teaching them what is success and start teaching them how to fly...really, everything else is just the lens through which you do so.

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