I don’t know when it happened, but we, as a society, seem to have forgotten that failure is a necessary component to success. Can you imagine what would happen to scientific advancement if failure was no longer an option? It would stagnate. Everyone would be too afraid to attempt anything unless they were 100% certain they were right.
Recently, during a teacher in-service, one of our school principals led a student panel discussion. The purpose of this panel was to give voice to students; to help them, perhaps, feel empowered and heard. They were supposed to be teaching us how to teach them.
There were several things wrong with this well-intentioned event. First and foremost, the students chosen were not completely representative of our diverse student population. Secondly, they were all articulate. Why is this a problem? Quite simply because many students who feel disenfranchised by the educational system do not use perfect English. They use slang. What they have to say is what interests me.
Here is what I want to know:
Why do you refuse to carry books larger than your back pocket?
Why are you so resistant to hard work?
When did learning become “uncool”?
Why are you so against reading on your own? How can I make reading easier for you?
What makes you think school is supposed to be fun all the time?
Do your parents talk to you on a regular basis, or do they merely complain about your behavior?
Did your parents read to you as children? Do your parents read now?
What can I do to help you — not just academically but also emotionally?
Sadly, these were not the questions asked of the student panel. Instead, they were asked about teachers and lessons that appeal to them. They were also asked about the amount of homework they’re given instead of being asked why they don’t get it done.
I cannot count the number of times I have heard students say, “I LOVE that teacher! He is so EASY.” When pushed for more information, they add, “We don’t really do anything. We just hang out and socialize.” Well, guess what? My job is not to entertain or cajole. My job is to teach, to inspire, to instruct. It isn’t always easy and it isn’t always fun; but nothing that is worthwhile ever comes without some sort of struggle.
Not too long before this panel, the Wall Street Journal published that misleading article on Amy Chua about Chinese mothers and why they are superior. This article was a topic of debate in my department lounge for about a week. We read the article with varying degrees of response. Some of us loathed every single word. Some of us felt like we understood our students better because our school happens to have a majority of Asians. I found myself asking, “who are you trying to kid? Are you really that delusional?”
The fact of the matter is – and I have no research to support this rather than my own personal experience and those of my colleagues – students who are pressured to bring home straight As are the most likely to cheat their way to the top. This is especially true for students who are in all honors and advanced placement classes. I have students whose parents yell, “You are not B-sian or C-sian; you are A-sian!” Some of the students who hear this are terrified of grades lower than an A minus and will beg and plead to have their grades inflated by any means necessary. Some rebel against this entirely and take on the “make me do my work” attitude. Still others decide that, in order to get that A, they must plagiarize on their essays, cheat on their tests, and copy other students’ homework.
Don’t think this is true? Case in point. My students no longer write essays at home. Why? Because two years ago, 7 of my 35 students in an honors class turned in essays that were 93 – 98% plagiarized. This means that their essays – which they had two weeks to write and were based largely on their own opinions – were copied directly from various websites and remained unattributed to the original authors. One student in particular wrote only the conclusion to her essay. I would like to think that these students learned their lesson, but unfortunately, at least one of them did it again the following year with a different teacher.
My mother always used to tell me that it didn’t matter what grade I earned so long as I did my best and I learned something in the process. This is the message that I would like more parents to convey. True – grades are important when it comes to furthering your education. Good grades can get you into a good college. But, if your good grades were earned by cheating, then you will not be able to complete your work once you get into college.
Do you really want the person prepping for your surgery to have cheated their way through medical school?
The other side of this face is that those who are not college bound, those who don’t care whether they learn or not don’t even care enough to cheat. They just don’t care. They don’t want to be failures, but they don’t want to achieve, either. How do I reach THEM? Who will listen to what THEY have to say? If we don’t get THEM onto some life-long path to learning, then what will become of their children? Or their grandchildren?
Me: Where do I begin?
Myself: At the beginning, of course!
Me: And just where IS the beginning?
Myself: Just tell them why you decided to start this endeavor that you have little time for, but insist on doing anyway.
Me: But there are so many reasons!
Myself: Pick one and roll with it. See where it takes you.
I: Okay, here goes.
Picture this. I’m in my Rabbi’s office having a pre-marital counseling session and I randomly boast of my ability to write a book about all the things I’ve learned as a high school teacher. My Rabbi was intrigued. She thought it was a great idea. She even said that my theoretical book would fill a desperate need. I felt humbled, and admittedly silenced. Who am I to claim that I have any more knowledge or expertise than the random Josephine? Well, I’ll tell you.
I am the teacher that your children go to when they can’t talk to you.
Interesting things have happened between that counseling session and today. New television shows claiming to be about “real” teens have joined the airwaves. I’ve read editorials, heard politicians wax on and my own family members complain all about ineffective teachers, and dangerous schools filled with sex-crazed kids toting guns. I’ve read articles that even had ME thinking that all students engage in dangerous behaviors from sexting to lord knows what else. I’m not gonna lie – some of what you read is true. Not all of my own students are angels. Some of them are in gangs. Some of them have parents who are in jail. Yes, today’s teens ARE exposed to way more than they should be and are given way more unsupervised time than is good for them. Teens are angry. They are confused. They are hurt. They want to feel validated. They want to hear the truth even if they say they don’t. They want to be heard without feeling pre-judged. And that is why they come to me.