Learning from Failures in Teaching: Three Students I Have Taught (Part 4)

I have failed in teaching some students. Most experienced teachers at any level of public schooling, I believe, could count their successes (however defined) with students but also tick off those students who slipped through their fingers, who danced beyond their repertoire of teaching techniques and moves. Harold, William,and Victor I failed.

I have won awards from students and colleagues for “excellent” teaching. I have been glowingly evaluated more times than I could count both in public schools and university. 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 have been 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 and the intricacies of classroom teaching. It is that organizational complexity and the multiple, entangled interactions of teaching 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 those thorny problems. These “solutions” somehow will magically disentangle complications, smooth over rough spots, and improve how teachers teach and students learn.

Hasn’t happened yet.

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

  1. I read your case studies this week; I had a student in 1959 that I know we never fully addressed her needs; the in 1963 I was better able to ask questions as to HOW to fulfill needs …. studied at Boston University throughout the late 60s and tried to find more evolution of K-12 programs (some of our young people were in cribs all day long because of the German Measles epidemic)… I sure hope that we can improve conditions and also the knowledge base so we have realistic ways of addressing the conditions and circumstances wherever we teach. Thank you for the case studies.

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