Hakuna Matata?

In response to my recent post highlighting a proposal made by our National Teacher of the Year Team, Mary—a first time commenter on the Radical—left the following thoughts that challenged my thinking this morning. She began by quoting a comment I made:

"After all, if I come to school… each day well prepared, and energetically and enthusiastically provide the best possible educational opportunity, how can I do more? How can I rationally be held responsible for more?"


The fact of the matter is that schools are not industries and students aren’t widgets — we can’t control the "raw material" we are given to be sure our "product" is of uniform high quality. The notion that we can take any child — motivated or unmotivated, gifted or developmentally delayed — and produce a highly achieving graduate is nonsense. And yes, it’s rhetoric.

My grandfather’s motivation for getting an education was that he wanted to stay out of the coal mines! Our modern culture — the American, good-time culture — produces large numbers of children who have no internal motivation and have neither parents nor a harsh real-world environment providing external motivation. Why study chemistry when you can play video games, text message your friends on your cell phone, or watch TV downloads until 3 in the morning?

Wait a few decades — I predict that we’ll see similar problems cropping up in other countries where the affluence is growing rapidly.

My next question to those who presume that enough "good" teachers (as opposed to we who are in the classrooms now) will turn around the American culture is: where are these people going to come from? I am considered a good teacher under most measures. High test scores. School leader. Mentor to new teachers. And every year I wonder if this should be my last. The rewards are few, the demands many. My analytical and problem-solving skills would be valued elsewhere far more than they will ever be valued in a school.

Since the start of our nation’s push for accountability and the introduction of No Child Left Behind, I’ve been wrestling with these very ideas. What responsibility do teachers and schools have for ensuring the success of every child? 

We work and live in a country that is incredibly comfortable allowing families to struggle to find food, medical care and adequate housing—currently 25% of all children in America grow up living in poverty—and yet we react with shock when gaps are reported between the academic performance of students living in wealth and those living in high needs communities. A part of me recognizes that until we are serious about addressing the economic gap that plagues rural and urban residents in nearly every state, our goal of ensuring that every child has an adequate education is nothing more than rhetoric.

But I also grow frustrated with educators who work from the mindset that it is our job to teach and a student’s job to learn. This dismissive attitude—embraced far too often—is somewhat embarrassing and has led to a general perception in America that teachers are lazy and incapable of accepting ownership over our profession. 

How can we rightfully say that learning isn’t our business?

What compounds this mistake is our insistence that teachers are the "keys to the future" and "our nation’s only hope for a brighter tomorrow." We argue for pay raises and then blame student failure on anything but our efforts. We bristle when outsiders question our "finished product" and react with indignance when confronted with "the brutal truth" about students who go underserved by colleagues who are unprofessional and irresponsible. When we’re doubted, we get defensive and start looking for a million excuses why children fail.

I guess I’ve just come to believe that if we want the respect accorded to other professions, we have to accept responsibility for student learning. We can’t claim to be teachers if a large percentage of our children leave our classrooms unprepared for the challenges of life. Either we are professionals ready to own our work—and the results that we produce—or we’re low-skilled workers with little ability, a problem-free philosophy and absolutely no worries! 


3 thoughts on “Hakuna Matata?

  1. Parry

    While I disagree with some of Mike’s post, I would like to wholeheartedly support, and even extend, one of his points.
    According to Mike, “The danger here is, again, that proclaiming that complete responsibility for learning is invested in the teacher has numerous deleterious effects… Learning is a collaborative effort.” This is a point that Mike has made in previous posts, and he usually attaches it to the idea that the students themselves, along with their parents, are also responsible for their own learning.
    I would like to put a different spin on this assertion. I would argue that an entire school, and all of the staff members in that school, are responsible for student learning. To limit accountability solely to individual teachers, thereby ignoring the context and environment within which teachers work, is to view schools and school systems with a myopic naiveté.
    For example, Mike describes a situation in which a fictional student fails to turn in multiple assignments, receives failing grades on numerous tests, and is egregiously tardy or absent throughout the year. When reading this description, the question that pops into my mind is not, “What else could the teacher have done for this student?” but rather “What else could the school have done?” In the school, do guidance counselors or administrators keep a regularly-updated list of struggling students? Do administrators and/or guidance counselors meet regularly with these students? Are there before-school or after-school interventions (e.g., study hall, individual tutoring) available? Do social workers make house calls for students who are chronically absent? Is there some type of school-based student support team to which struggling students can be referred?
    Mike says that students fail his class because they don’t do the work. What is the school doing to ensure that these students get their work done? Teachers have a limited number of resources available to them to convince students to work, and they should be held accountable for using all of them as well as possible, but administrators can bring to bear a whole additional set of tools. What structures, process, and resources are in place schoolwide to ensure that all students are successful?
    If a student fails in Mike’s class, he asserts that “I need no excuses, for I am confident that I have given each and every student the best opportunity to learn that I possibly can.” If that is the case, can the same be said of the other staff members in the building? As educators, can we really ensure academic success for all students if we define accountability strictly in terms of the classroom teacher?

  2. Mike

    Dear Bill:
    Thanks yet again for providing one of the few forums on the net where educators can engage in meaningful, snark-free dialogue. Much appreciated.
    Mary’s comments in response to mine brought up several significant points. Among them was that, unlike any time in the past, American kids have such a complete safety net that most feel no pressure to further their education as a necessary prerequisite to mere survival and ultimate success. Most know that their parents will be there to bail them out, they can live at home until their parents die and they will then merely take over the property. There is little or no social stigma attached to slacker behavior. When parents do little or nothing to encourage their offspring to actually do some work–work in becoming educated, work in doing work, work in planning a future and doing what is necessary to bring that future to fruition–what can teachers do to change this state of affairs?
    I’m afraid I must take issue with a few of your points here. What is now lauded as “acountability,” isn’t. Prior to NCLB, every teacher in America was subject to a system of accountability that began with their building principal who wrote their evaluations and ending with state education agencies that could, if necessary, revoke a teacher’s certificate. Bad teachers were being fired across the nation each and every day, and certificates were actually revoked. While it goes without saying that these local systems occasionally broke down, that is not an argument for a political solution that cannot address educational problems. The accountability imposed by NCLB and state-imposed high stakes tests is entirely a political animal, and as such, generates statistics, sound bites, and provides ample opportunity for politicians to puff out their chests and make whichever proclamation regarding education they find advantagous this week. We would do well to remember that many of the folks so in favor of NCLB accountability would be delighted to spend public dollars on private education (taking it directly out of the classroom) at the least, and at worst, would be delighted to abolish public education. Let us not, as teachers, fall in to the trap of buying the political rhetoric of those who do not wish us well and who see us as anything but professionals. Real, local accountability still exists in every American school district today, quite apart from testing and federal mandates.
    We do indeed have poverty in America, but it is, by and large, a level of poverty that would be considered fantastic wealth by the world’s true poor, even within our own hemisphere. While we must do what we can to be helpful to those who are, through no fault of their own, in dire straits, do we help society–or the individual–if they are in dire straits through their own sloth or through incredibly bad decisions? Bill Cosby has raised a number of important points along these lines.
    This goes back to Mary’s point. At one time in America, poverty was not an excuse for anything. Many of those who were poor worked hard to improve their situation, as it can only be done in America. They understood the meaning of pride and honor and hard work, and did their best with what they had, sacrificing where necessary for long term, meaningful goals. Can we say the same now? And if I’m correct, what are the consequences for us all?
    In my medium sized Texas high school, a very large portion of our student population qualifies for free and reduced meals, yet very few sign up for them, despite our repeated appeals and the fact that we have made it impossible for anyone to tell that a given student receives this benefit. This is only one of many support mechanisms even my unremarkable school has in place, opportunities, if you wish, that students and their parents choose to decline. Yes, living in poverty makes life, including learning, more difficult, but when life is more difficult for us, we have two choices: work harder or give up.
    I’m afraid that I have the dismissive attitude of which you spoke, for I believe, no, I know, that it is my job to teach and a student’s job to learn. I know this from my own experience on many levels. Learning is hard work. Acquiring knowledge, learning new skills, honing old skills, all take concerted concentration and real effort over time. There is no substitute for it, and the most magnificent teacher in the world who believes that they are solely responsible for the educational outcome of all of their students is making a grand political statement with their pronouncements, but is no more effective than a good, hardworking teacher who believes as I do. The only difference is in rhetoric.
    Each of these teachers, you see, most likely work hard to prepare each day. They lead examined professional lives, and do not teach from the same yellowed notes year after year. They are always looking for ways to improve and will teach a given lesson six different ways if their students need it. They constantly upgrade their own educations and skills, and strive to encourage each and every student to do their best.
    The danger here is, again, that proclaiming that complete responsibility for learning is invested in the teacher has numerous deleterious effects. First and foremost, it relieves students and their parents of all responsibility for learning. Why bother to do the hard work of education if it’s all the teacher’s fault if you fail? It is also impossible for any teacher; it sets them up for inevitable failure. Teachers cannot download knowledge and capabilities into students. They cannot, through the mere force of their brilliant personalities and stunning dedication make students learn. They cannot make students learn. They can make them appear to be reading. They can demand that they turn in something written on paper in terms of assignments, they can require them to sit quietly and not disturb others, but they cannot make them learn. If I am incorrect in this simple understanding, please tell me how I may transform myself so that I can make every student learn despite their utter lack of effort, or perhaps, an utter lack of attendance. Finally, taking complete responsibility plays well into the hands of those who are no friend of public education and certainly not of teachers, for whom they have nothing but contempt, thinking us crazed left-wing indoctrinators, blithering idiots, utterly incompetent, or all of the above and more.
    Learning is a collaborative effort. It has always been so and always will be so, for it is the nature of human beings. Perhaps those who claim total responsibility for teachers are frustrated, and rightfully so, with teachers who lack the proper dedication and discipline, for there are certainly many who do not even attempt to provide the best possible educational opportunity each day. We could certainly trade stories, no? I can appreciate their frustration, indeed, I share it. But the means to solve that problem is proper supervision and staff development. Yes, I know that isn’t always done, but it’s not an argument for allowing poor supervision and training to flourish in favor of something else, is it? Personal responsibility: In teaching, in learning, in supervising, and in being a parent. When personal responsibility in any of these functions is not present, the system fails, and no amount of accountabile test scores and political rhetoric will help the student who doesn’t bother to do their schoolwork, or even to attend classes, learn, nor will those scores and rhetoric help the teacher teach.
    When my students fail, and some do each and every year, I have no excuses. I need no excuses, for I am confident that I have given each and every student the best opportunity to learn that I possibly can, including second, third, fourth and more chances where appropriate. No, that opportunity was not perfect, for I am not perfect, but I try damned hard. And if Johnny’s mother wants to know why Johnny failed, I can show her that out of 150 assignments, Johnny didn’t bother to turn in 72. He failed 26 others, and he was absent 58 days during the year and tardy to class 37 times. I can explain in detail why Johnny didn’t do his work, and by the end of the year, I’ll have computer copies of every letter I’ve sent that parent, complete with copies of their assignments and grades, suggestions for improvement, pleas for meetings, help, etc. Explanations. I need no excuses.
    Students fail my class for one primary reason: They don’t do the work. All they need do to pass is to do each assignment, make an honest effort, and hand it in. If they will only do this, it will be virtually mathematically impossible for them to fail. Even if they put little effort into the work, the mere act of doing some practice will result in learning and enhanced ability. No, not nearly what they could have attained, but improvement nonetheless. Maximum improvement requires maximum effort.
    I own my work each and every day. But remember that we are not, and will never be a true profession. In terms of exercising power, determining our compensation, dictating our working environment, we are utterly dependent upon those in positions of power over us. It has always been so. Speaking, looking and acting professional may impress some, but the public really wants teachers who are approachable, smart, know their discipline, are down to earth, know their kids, obviously like them and care about them, and who aren’t afraid, diplomatically, to hold kids responsible for their performance. Most adults understand that as they live it each day. We do our kids no favors by merely suggesting that they bear no responsibility for their own learning, unless of course, we’re willing to take responsibility for planning and living their lives after high school as well.
    Whew! I’ll look forward to your response, and thanks again!

  3. Bob

    Kudos! Clearly stated mainstream thinking. While I’d quibble with using the phrase “unprepared for the challenges of life,” you summarize our responsibility as many of us see it also. Thanks.

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