Learning from Failures in Teaching: Three Students I Have Taught (Part 2)

William was quiet in class. Kept back twice in elementary school, the school psychologist diagnosed him as “below-average” in tested intelligence but did not find any intellectual or emotional disabilities. Now, 18 years of age, he was in the 11th grade and earning As and Bs in his courses, including mine, and looking forward to graduating high school.

After school one day–he would also come in to my room to talk while I was eating lunch–we engaged in a long conversation about his future. I asked about college and he shook his head, saying “No.” He had once wanted to be a engineer but now he had given up that idea. His father had encouraged him to go to college also as I had, but now, according to William, it was out of the question.

Why? I asked.

Turns out that William was a member of a religious group that believed Armageddon would occur sooner rather than later and that God would only save those who accepted Jesus Christ as the Savior. He was a recent convert to the group and a true believer in the imminent end-of-the world.

Before school, during lunch, and after school, we would discuss both his and my beliefs in Judaism. He brought in pamphlets from his group. We would discuss them often returning to the question of his continuing his schooling. When our conversation would go that way, William would smile and, as if he were dealing with a very slow-learning teacher, politely explain to me that he believed life as we know it will end in a holocaust of earthquakes, fires, and hailstorms. The Bible foretold it and it could occur as soon as the end of the decade. Since there would be few survivors, he had to prepare himself for what would occur. To attend college would be foolish. Given his beliefs, he was right.

I admired William for his staunch beliefs even when, without a blink of his eye, he said that I and my family would die in the fire to come because we were unbelievers. I took him as seriously as he took himself.

In a high school of 1500, he identified one person as a friend. More than once, he told me, his beliefs had become the butt of jokes in classes and among other students. Much of his time outside of school was spent in studying, attending meetings at his church, and, on weekends, doing street ministry work.

In class, William would participate often in discussions, do his assignments and perform well on tests. Whenever the class worked independently on short research papers or contracts, he did especially well. He received a B+.

I guess by conventional criteria, I was effective with William (e.g., did assignments, got high scores on tests, participated in class discussions). He seemed to have learned content and skills from me as a history teacher. The question I have, however, is what did William learn from me as a person in the many hours of talking during the semester?

I can say that in one sense, I failed William. Why I failed, I am unsure. If—and this is a big “if”– one of the many tasks a teacher is charged with when teaching–at any grade level–is to get students to examine their values and clarify them while they are being examined, then I was unsuccessful.

My job, as I saw it, was not to dismantle his beliefs but to get him to reflect on them. He surely got me to do that with my beliefs by throwing my questions back at me to defend himself. I sensed this and chose not to continue that line of questioning. So I believe that I failed William.

Then there is Victor who I take up in Part 3


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4 responses to “Learning from Failures in Teaching: Three Students I Have Taught (Part 2)

  1. speduktr

    I would be very interested in what he planned to do with his next ten years preparing for this apocalypse. What was his idea of living that time to the fullest? I see lots of potentially interesting discussions that would call for some critical thinking and reflection. Has it been ten years yet?

    • larrycuban

      The incident I described in the post occurred in the 1970s when I was teaching in a Washington, D.C. high school. All I know of the student is that he graduated high school. I left the school the year he graduated and lost touch with him. Thanks for the comment and question.

  2. Steve Davis

    It’s difficult to discuss beliefs of any kind with students (political, religious or otherwise). I have even had students take offense to my suggestions to look at astrology with a skeptical eye. People do not like it when their beliefs are questioned. The artful teacher questions in a way that encourages dialogue instead of alienating the student. It sounds like you were able to do this with William. He may well still be waiting for Armageddon. And maybe that is not such a bad thing after all.

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