Monday, May 19, 2008

Working with Failures

Before I say where this is from, I'm going to start by pasting a few passages from a recent commentary written by a teacher.

For many of my students, [passing my classes] is difficult . . . their boredom quickly becomes apparent. They fidget; they prop their heads on their arms; they yawn and sometimes appear to grimace in pain, as though they had been tasered. Their eyes implore: How could you do this to me?

Despite my enthusiasm, despite their thoughtful nods of agreement and what I have interpreted as moments of clarity, it turns out that in many cases it has all come to naught . . .

Remarkably few of my students can do well in these classes. Students routinely fail; some fail multiple times, and some will never pass, because they cannot write a coherent sentence.

I explain, I give examples, I cheerlead, I cajole, but each evening, when the class is over and I come down from my teaching high, I inevitably lose faith in the task, as I’m sure my students do.

Over the course of 15 weeks, some of my best writers improve a little. Sometimes my worst writers improve too, though they rarely, if ever, approach base-level competence.

I had responsibilities to the rest of my students, so only when the class ended could I sit with her and work on some of the basics. It didn’t go well. She wasn’t absorbing anything. The wall had gone up, the wall known to every teacher at every level: the wall of defeat and hopelessness and humiliation, the wall that is an impenetrable barrier to learning. She wasn’t hearing a word I said.

[The student] had done everything that American culture asked of her. She had gone back to school to better herself, and she expected to be rewarded for it, not slapped down. She had failed not, as some students do, by being absent too often or by blowing off assignments. She simply was not qualified

One of the things I try to do on the first [day of class] is relate the literary techniques we will study to novels that the students have already read. I try to find books familiar to everyone. This has so far proven impossible. My students don’t read much, as a rule, and though I think of them monolithically, they don’t really share a culture.

Based on these statements, what do you think about this teacher? Is he working hard enough? Is he a good teacher? Does he give up too easily? Should he be doing more to ensure the success of his students?

I'll reveal the source of these quotes (in case you don't already know) and why I think this is important later in the day.

Update: The follow-up post is here

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