Harold, William, Victor, and Me (Part 2)

I saved Victor for last.

Neatly dressed, carrying a large notebook and a couple of bulky textbooks, Victor would smile at my “good morning,” walk to the rear of the room and sit down. He would put aside a ruler, open a book, take out paper and begin writing. He often wrote steadily  and intensely for 10 or 15 minutes. If we were in the midst of a discussion or group work, I would quietly ease over to him and ask what he was writing. He would smile, close the book and put away the paper. Victor, you see, could not read above the fourth grade level.

He could copy page after page of a textbook–and repeatedly did so– but did not understand what he was writing. Victor was a junior and nearly 20 years of age. His tested IQ was 63 and he had been in a special class in elementary school but had been mainstreamed since then.

High school was very different for Victor. He had learned to survive by keeping his mouth shut, acting studious, and turning in work that was incomprehensible. He would get As in citizenship and Ds and Fs in academic achievement. What he could decipher in textbooks in his various classes, he seldom comprehended.

While he was in my class, Victor spoke out three times. In each instance what he said made sense except that it had little to do with what the rest of the class was discussing. Most of the time he would write or stare at the blackboard. His face was a mask.

Whenever the class worked independently, he would laboriously copy word-for-word paragraphs from the U.S. History text. I would talk to him. These exchanges would make him very antsy and I would break them off. Occasionally, he would want to talk and he would tell me of his church activities and how much he enjoyed sketching pictures. A few times he would let me look through his sketchbook.

Other students in the class ignored Victor. I do not recall anyone ever initiating a conversation with him. When he would speak, snickers would flit around the room. Not once did I see him talking with another student when we would pass in the halls.

Being in five classes where he was unable to read, speak, or connect to other students must have taken its toll. How much he endured, I had no way of knowing. He never permitted me to enter his private world.

Because I wrote letters and called parents of students–both those doing well and not so well–I called Victor’s mother. I pointed out to her what I had observed about his behavior and inability to understand the text, assignments, and classwork. I also told her that I was a history teacher, not a reading teacher. She became angry with me and went into a heated description of Victor’s early years as one of several foster children in the family. She urged me to get him tutoring, to give him extra assignments–anything to get him to pass. She was determined to have Victor complete high school.

In an attempt to help Victor, I and two other of his teachers requested a conference with his foster mother. It was a disaster.

Along with the assistant principal, a counselor, teachers and mother, Victor’s social worker was present. The social worker had recommended to the mother on an earlier occasion that Victor be transferred to a vocational school or to a rehabilitation center where he could learn useful skills, where he would not have to sit for six hours a day writing out paragraphs from different texts. Victor’s mother had dismissed the suggestion and did so again. Victor, she said, could do the work if he tried harder and if his teachers tried harder.

Victor stayed in school. He received an F in my class.

Here again, I failed. I was unequipped to teach Victor how to read sufficiently to understand the text. Nor could I crack the defenses Victor had built to protect himself from people like me.

Did he learn anything from me as a person as well as from the content and skills I taught? I doubt it but, in truth, I do not know.

Let me be clear about my teaching as perceived by others. In every school I have taught principals have judged me effective in “ability to communicate with students,” in “knowledge and skillful use of materials and techniques,” in blah, blah, blah.

Other districts and universities have invited me to teach demonstration lessons and speak to their faculties.

I have written  instructional materials, articles in professional journals and books. And they have been well received. Thus, I ask myself: if I am so effective, why are there Harolds, Williams, and Victors that I have failed to reach and teach?

I raise this question simply because I know both in my gut and in my head that there are many teachers like myself who try hard, are evaluated as highly effective, and believe deeply, very deeply, that they can make a difference in children’s and youth’s lives. But not every child, not every teenager. There are situations that simply are beyond their control and failing with certain students is one of those situations.

“Beyond their control?”

Yes. When teachers succeed with most of their students, it is clear that what the student brings to the classroom, what the teacher possesses in knowledge and skills, and the structures of schooling in which both live are aligned sufficiently for success to occur. Teaching and learning is a complex process and, at the minimum, these three factors (and there are many more) have to be in sync for any degree of success to happen. When success with children and youth does happen, and it does, the complexity is often hidden from sight.

However, when students fail, blame is distributed among students, teachers, and the school and, in prior years, the family. Blame, however, hides the many moving parts and interactions that happen in classrooms and schools, the sheer complexity of teaching and learning in age-graded schools.

So in the case of Harold, William, and Victor, I brought limited knowledge and expertise to the table in dealing with these three students. They, in turn, brought to the very same table, strengths and limitations that made it difficult to find success in a complex organization designed for mass production of teaching and learning.

What does that last sentence mean?

Teachers did not design the age-graded high school structure for 1500-plus students that puts teachers into self-contained classrooms, mandates 45-60 minute periods of instruction and report cards every nine weeks. These structures trap students into routines that seem to work for most but not all students. These structures also trap teachers into routines as well that work for most but not all teachers.

Time, for example, is crucial since all students do not learn at the same pace. Daily school schedules seldom reflect that fact. Time is also crucial for teachers to work together for lessons and students that they share.

These and many other interacting factors led, I believe, to the conflicted relationships I had with these three students, making their learning U.S. history both superficial and doubtful.

For many observers, schooling appears easy enough when stories of teachers and students turn out to be successes (however defined). It is those instances, however, when students like Harold, William, and Victor fail that these and many other interacting factors, come together to reveal, for those who can see, the sheer complexity of schooling. It is that complexity that foils, time and again, reformers’ claims that changing curriculum, improving tests to measure curricular changes, raising the stakes in teacher evaluation, converting systems into markets where parents can choose schools, and holding both teachers and students  accountable will solve thorny problems. These “solutions” somehow will magically improve how teachers teach and students learn.

Hasn’t happened yet.


Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

19 responses to “Harold, William, Victor, and Me (Part 2)

  1. Art

    “But not every child, not every teenager. There are situations that simply are beyond their control and failing with certain students is one of those situations.” A hell of a lot of truth in this statement! If folks realized the truth of this and your last paragraph, we’d all be much better off!

  2. Pingback: 2 blogposts van Larry Cuban over leerlingen waar hij bij faalde | X, Y of Einstein?

  3. EB

    “Failure” with Harold, William, and Victor were very different from each other. Harold’s issue was rebellion; William’s was fixed beliefs; and Victor’s was his mother’s cruelty (yes, it is cruel to force a student to be in a classroom where sh/e can’t learn anything and is losing the opportunity to be in a classroom where sh/e could learn important things).

    In fact, I would not call any of these situations a failure on your part, Larry. Teachers fail when they don’t try, when they don’t prepare themselves adequately, when their content or instructional skills are weak, when they carry bad attitudes towards some or all of their students, when they don’t seek help in dealing with difficult situations. You did none of these things; you just didn’t get 100% of your students to achieve at a maximum, or to behave appropriately. In a perfect world, maybe it would be OK to have 100% achievement and 100% good behavior as a goal, but in the world we live in, I find it more helpful to have a goal of doing as much as we can for students, improving as much as we can over time, and not beating ourselves up over the (inevitable) times when effort + skill + empathy still do not have the result we hoped for.

    • larrycuban

      Your comments, Jane, got me thinking. I believe I failed with Harold–see Cal’s comments on Part 1. Probably not on William and Victor for the reasons you and others gave. Your comment, however, got me thinking about failure through mistakes or simply error of commission or omission as a teacher (think of medical doctor errors in diagnosis and treatment that occur). The instances of teacher failure that you mention–those who do not try, or are unprepared, or have weak skills, or do not seek help–all make sense but do leave out lapses in judgment, or errors in thinking through the content and skills appropriate for the child or youth. Or simply mistakes in misreading a student, particularly a minority student’s capacity to learn.

      • EB

        OK. I think we should compromise on the idea that a teacher MAY have failed when her/his work with a student doesn’t result in success — through error of judgment or choosing a strategy that doesn’t work. But I still think it’s inaccurate to say that you KNOW you failed, because your strategies and decisions may have been the best, and yet there was too much in the student’s “baggage” for a teacher, in one year, five hours per week plus out of class discussions, to overcome. I find it much more helpful to think that all of the influences on a student’s life, including the student her/himself if it’s a high school student, may have had a role in that student’s failure. Teachers are in a critical role when it comes to school-based learning, yes, and are authorized and motivated to encourage academic learning. But they are not alone in the driver’s seat.

        And yes, if the judgment error is to assume that a student has a low learning capacity, that’s a really serious failure. It’s the lazy way when students seem to be stuck or disengaged or hostile.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks again, Jane, for taking the time to comment and elaborate your earlier one.

  4. Tom

    Thank you Larry for sharing these students and your experiences with them. I am a classroom teacher, fifth grade, and I recognize each of them as my former students, not in the literal sense but as certain types of students who I also have failed.

    Our students’ learning and successes are built not just on our shoulders for that one school year but on all of their former classrooms and teachers. So, if Harold, William, and Victor or their equivalents Anthony, Jean Paul, and Eduardo have failed in our classrooms, then it is not only your or my failure, but the failure of all of us, their teachers.

    Each school year, allows us, educators, the opportunity to refine our craft and skill, and try again. As Samuel Beckett writes: “ Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” So, I will.

    Again, thanks for sharing and fighting the good fight.

  5. Cal

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while, because I think my comment would be too long and I also don’t want to be too harsh, to imply that my solutions would be easy or obvious.

    Suffice it to say that yes, I agree with your sense that you failed Victor, even though I absolutely agree that the mother and the administration were wrong to put you in that position and that the primary fault lies with them. And I understand that many teachers feel that a passing grade is a lie if the kid can’t do the work.

    However, I think you could have done more to help Victor succeed, not least of all in feeling less “weird” and to help him feel some sense of belonging in the class, as well as help his classmates feel better about his presence. I think you could also have done more to help him participate in class. I also think that it’s possible (I’m not certain) that you signaled your unhappiness with his lack of ability and his way of coping with it, rather than working with him.

    When I read your post, I see many things I would have done differently. It’s possible, of course, that you tried all the things I’m thinking of with no success, but I think you would have spelled them out if so.

    Again, I don’t want to imply that I think you’re a bad teacher, just that I understand your sense of “failure”.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Cal, for taking the time to comment. Your third paragraph I agree with. I could have done more. But at the time, I felt I was doing all I could. Not a defense or apology, just reporting on what I recall. I am willing to take the responsibility for what I did and did not do. Knowing what I know now, I would have done things differently. Ah, but as you know, life is a one-act play.

  6. Cal

    Well, of course. I thought the point of your essays was not to castigate yourself, but to get teachers to see a spark of recognition in a situation they face. Could they do more?

  7. Interesting story. Seems like he would have been better off in a Sudbury Valley-type school where he could follow his own interests.

    I don’t see how you could have done anything more.

  8. Danielle

    Larry, I really enjoyed your stories about your students. It is refreshing to know there are other teachers who worry about “failure” with their students. I am a second grade teacher, so I would imagine my experience differs from your own. Each year I feel like there are one or two students that stick out in my mind as students I have failed. Being a second grade teacher, I do have the opportunity to try and fix things, find them services they need, put their families in contact with people that can help them, but even with these opportunities, I find in many cases I still fail them in some way. I also have the chance to meet with these students as they move to higher grades. I try to continue to build my relationship with them, checking in on them in third grade, fourth, and fifth.

    Your statements about trapping students and teachers into routines that work for most but not all students really made sense to me. I have three students this year that have already been held back, and are still only reading, writing, and doing math at the kindergarten level. I often feel like I watch them in class as they just stare off at the board or their books and have no idea what is happening around them. It reminds me so much of Victor in your story. Each day I rack my brain trying to figure out, what can I do for these children? Their parents, like in your case, are often not supportive. They come to conferences, answer my phone calls, yet still do nothing on their end to meet their needs. I have to admit I do not always know what is happening in their home lives unless they give that information to me; so maybe it is a time issue for them at home, or maybe even, they are not competent enough to help them.

    Despite all of these feelings of failure, I try to find small successes in their year with me. For students like Harold, those with a lack of motivation and a class-clown personality, maybe success would lie in getting them to recognize their own potential or self worth, maybe it would be making it through a whole week of class. While the students who struggle in class might not pass the grade, or complete grade level work, there still might be some small success in their year that I can say, “Look at what we accomplished together.“

    Thank you again for your perspective. Though you might feel like you failed personally because you didn’t accomplish the goals you set for yourself with your students, remember your students themselves might not feel like a failure because of the effort you put forth. Thanks again!

    • larrycuban

      Thank you so much, Danielle, for describing your experiences with second grade kids. Those “small successes” you find, I call small victories and are treasures that are both meaningful to us and the students.

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