Looking at Schools Through Rose-Colored Glasses?

A reader once asked, “Why don’t you ever write positive articles about the good things that good students do in our schools?” Rest assured, dear readers, that motivated students are among the principal reasons that many teachers endure, despite daunting challenges, for decades.

One such young lady grew up in El Salvador. Witness, at a very tender age, to the armed barbarism of the Death Squads along her neighborhood street, she persevered in her newly-adopted country. She might have withdrawn into precocious nihilism, but instead remained  bright and ebullient despite her early introduction to the unspeakable horrors of humankind. With an elementary grammar and a reader, she had taught herself to speak French, virtually unaided, to just short of near-native fluency prior to her arrival in my classroom while still learning English as a second language. 

In her second year of French, she memorized and performed recitations of La Fontaine’s “Les Animaux malades de la peste” and Perrault’s “Le Petit chaperon rouge” for the advanced classes. The memory of this intellectual feat still stupefies me. She hugged and thanked me when she got the best possible score on a competitive National Exam though my contribution had been, at best, that of a pedestrian giving directions to a passerby. Later, she received a full-ride scholarship and graduated with honors.

Many are the remarkable reminiscences that teachers might share.

Such recollections, however, also plant the seeds for the second career crisis suffered by many a teacher. The first? Teachers quickly realize that they are expected to deliver far too much for far too many young people with far too few resources. The most heartfelt and patient ministrations are spread too thin on a clientele of overwhelming number.

Later, usually between the third and fifth year, teachers begin to question their relevance in the educational process. The strongest students succeed admirably no matter who is teaching; the weakest students fail to thrive academically despite even herculean efforts; and finally, an overwhelming number of average students are content to slide by with meeting minimal requirements. If internalized, this can lead to feelings of professional impotence and futility akin to the feeling of walking up a very long escalator in rapid descent.  

Teachers must frequently accept on faith, alone, that their efforts are producing desired effects on the academic achievement of students. Occasionally, students return years later to inform teachers that instruction has borne fruit, but such anecdotal evidence often fails to overcome a feeling of futility. Let’s call this feeling “Instructional Dysfunction Syndrome”. Even though it is more perception than reality, it ends too many teaching careers prematurely.

As tempting as it may be, taking too much pride in the high achievers that cross our thresholds is pointless. As the French are so fond of saying, “Even a blind pig occasionally finds a truffle.” Chances are that the high achiever’s successes are more accurately attributed to familial support and personal motivation than to inherently superior instructional practice. Such students likely succeed no matter who delivers instruction.

Students at the other end of the spectrum tend to command more attention from teachers in the public schools. Low achievers tend to exist in greater numbers. Their needs are immeasurably greater. If left unattended, their effect on the learning environment can be indescribably detrimental. While simple human concern for weaker students is involved in attending to their varied needs, motivated self-interest is also a factor in tailoring instruction to suit that demographic.

Fairly early in my career a defiant student admonished my efforts to inspire him, “You can’t teach me, cuz I won’t learn.” How does a student arrive in High School capable of such an observation? How are the Public Schools going to overcome willful and obstinate ignorance? What resources will be required to surmount such negative socialization and how do we persuade legislators to allocate them? These are questions that deserve answers soon.

Once, a student endured my panglossian lecture on the concept of cause-and-effect as related to grades. He was informed that if he did not study he would not be able to pass my quizzes and tests, and that if he did not pass quizzes and tests and neglected his assignments, then passing the class would be, at best, a dubious proposition. This student very calmly responded, “I’ve failed classes before. I’ll fail classes again. I hate school.”

Frankly, this mindset has always been impenetrable to this lifelong learner. While never the “best” of students, self-directed learning was my passion long before knowing the term “autodidact“. Early on, school represented my escape from the endless chores of farm life. Four decades later the names of my primary school teachers still resound: first grade, Mrs. Keller; second grade, Mrs. Haines (no relation); third grade, Mrs. Stickley; fourth grade, Mrs. Turner; fifth grade, Mrs. Houghton; six grade, Mrs. Marden.

Middle school brought new challenges: French, Mrs. Barbara Russell; Music, Mr. Harold Fox; Math, Mrs. Gensler and Mr. MacKenzie; English, Mr. St. Clair; Social Studies, Mrs. Holmes; Physical Education, Mr. Lindquist and Mr. Proctor. Regrettably, the synapses that held Industrial Arts and Science are lost. It was a shock that my school transcripts did not record the teachers of my classes.

Four decades ago came High School. Each of my teachers, even those few whose names fail to come to mind, helped instill an indelible love of learning: English, Mr. Sellers; Biology, Mrs. Moore; German, Herr Reger and Frau Benson; N.J.R.O.T.C, Chief Tarasuk; Geometry, Mr. Arnold; History, Mr. Tom Walsh and Mr. Miller; Drama, Michelle (Don’t call me Miss) Busti.

The Fates were less than kind in my junior year. The vicissitudes of life compelled me to drop out of school in my senior year, but by then learning was a lifestyle. Each of the names mentioned here merits an article in tribute for having kept that passion alive. Herein resides their apotheosis. 

To this day, I still cherish the memory of virtually every person I have ever called my teacher.

-Too frequently, my students called me… Mr. Ummm.

-On a good day, they called me Mr. Ummm-Haines.

-On a bad day, they called me by the name of the teacher down the hall.

-On test days they muttered expletives….

It is a challenge not to take it personally.

While researchers have proven that students genuinely “do not remember” chattering in class even when shown videotapes of themselves doing so, it is nonetheless annoying that children will quarrel vociferously about whether they were talking in class even when instruction has been halted and everyone has been eavesdropping. Visions invade my dreams of students pointing a remote control my way while vigorously and repeatedly pushing the mute button. At other times, I feel like little more than a speed bump on my students’ road to a social life.

Acute disinterest in anything academic has become the norm. For many students, it is way cool to play the fool. A disquieting aura of “chic” envelops the state of vacuousness. We inhabit a world where bright students will systematically give incorrect answers they know to be wrong in order to avoid being labeled a “nerd”. This is a rejection of societal values that must be overcome.

How and when will this lofty goal be accomplished?

According to the precepts of psychotherapy, patients must first realize that a problem exists, and second they must want a cure. Only then are they ready for the arduous process of therapy. 

Looking at our schools through the rose-colored glasses of anecdotal success stories will lead some to the delusion that we have committed sufficient resources to the education of our children and that those left behind have none to blame but themselves. Both of those assumptions are erroneous. 

We must undertake the hard work of seeking the cure. Too little has changed in the two millennia since Epictetus proclaimed “Only the educated are free.” 

[This is a much revised version of a “Viewpoint” that appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in June of 2000.]

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