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Student Commitment Depends on Teacher Commitment

| Ben Johnson

Our students don't always learn what we want them to learn, but they always learn something. Other than the curriculum, they may learn how to fight the system, or how to get the teacher mad, or how to avoid responsibility, or how to talk to friends without being noticed by the teacher. Working with the teacher or against the teacher, either way, learning takes place.

Recently, I asked a group of educators to answer the question, who is responsible for learning in the classroom -- the teacher or the students? Interestingly enough, the group of educators was split down the middle on their viewpoints. Half said the responsibility belonged with the students, and the other half said the responsibility lay with teachers.

It went back and forth for a while, neither side conceding. The fierce discussion hovered around the real crux of the problem: if the teacher says it's the student's responsibility, and the students say it is the teacher's responsibility, then no one is responsible. How many school classrooms have this problem with perceptions of responsibility? I know of a few.

As teachers, I think we all need to agree on the statement, In my class, every student will learn.

Two of my heroes are Mary Catherine Swanson and Jaime Escalante. Both of them accepted the mantra, I believe that every student will learn in my class. Mary Catherine Swanson, the founder of AVID, was not afraid to commit to every student learning in her class. She was an English teacher in San Diego and refused to accept that her students, perceived as disadvantaged, could not learn in advanced college-prep classes. Jaime Escalante, of Stand and Deliver fame, was not afraid to commit to helping all of his students learn. He had been given a remedial math class of what some considered the worst students and he took them all the way to AP Calculus.

Both of these regular, everyday teachers accepted the responsibility for learning in their classrooms (interestingly enough, both faced severe opposition from their colleagues and administrators for doing so). What did they do exactly? They simply got busy and went to work helping their students learn. That choice, all by itself, is how they became exceptional teachers.

How can I do that? I don't have those skills, or that talent, and I'm just a regular teacher, you might ask. We must become self-actualized. We cannot be dependent on others to do what we know we can do as teachers. We have to get to the point where the minimum is not enough, and finding solutions for challenges around student learning become our daily bread and breath of life.

When the teacher says, I am the one that makes learning possible in the classroom and I am committed to make it happen. And the student says, I will do everything that I can to learn. I am ready to learn. That is when the magic of learning really happens.

How can we continue to adopt these attitudes in our classrooms and encourage more colleagues to do the same? Please share your ideas and suggestions.

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Comments (33)

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5th grade Math and Science Teacher

Amazing

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This blog was truly inspirational, I have been guilty of accusing my failures to the fact that my students just did not want to learn. Then inevitably this would lead to me giving up. Within the past three years or so I decided to not take no for an answer and not let the lack of motivation my students had deter me from my goal. I would go full throttle whether or not my students agreed, eventually my students would become enthused and follow me down the road to success. At the beginning it is always tough to get the students motivated (especially with the older ones) but if one finds out what they are interested in and embeds it within the curriculum one will always get a positive outcome. As the educators, if we show true enthusiasm and determination the students will follow suit.

A teacher needs to LOVE teaching

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Everything starts with LOVE. If a teacher loves his/her job, he/she can easily adopt the attitude and make his/her students love to learn. So, how can we make teachers love their job?

There are social and economical aspects that would make a person love his/her job. On the social side, if a teacher knows that the community appreciates/respects what he/she does, it would motivate the teacher and perhaps make him/her love his job. On the economical side, if a teacher gets paid well, it would be a motivation for him/her to love his job.

If a teacher loves what he/she is doing, he/she would make every attempt to take responsibility of his/her classroom and work hard to help his/her students learn. So, do communities really appreciate what teachers do? Do teachers get paid well? I really wonder what everyone thinks?

Administrator, author and educator

Success

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JHorn:

In one of my earlier blogs I discuss the transformation teachers make as they mature in education. You are definitely at the self-actualized level where regardless of the difficulties, you are going to make headway with each student using what is in your control.

I read an interesting article by Richard Wiseman (2003) called The Luck Factor. He did an extensive study of 400 people that considered themselves either lucky or unlucky. Listening to their stories an uninitiated observer would be inclined to agree with the people who said they were lucky and with the people who said they were unlucky. Wiseman discovered that the attitudes of people governed their behaviors to such a degree that the unlucky, so intent on escaping their bad luck, could not see opportunity right in front of them. In one experiment they had to look through a newspaper and count how many pictures were in it. The people who considered themselves lucky all quit looking after a few seconds, while the people who thought they were unlucky kept looking for several minutes. Why did the "lucky" people stop? On the second page was a half-page advertisement that said stop counting, there are 43 pictures in this newspaper. Another similar message was placed further on in the newspaper, and still, the unlucky people were so intent on counting pictures, they missed both messages.

You are so correct, we need to quit counting pictures and look at what is really happening and the things we over which we have control.

Well stated post. Thanks

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Quote:

Anyone can impart knowledge, but teaching requires skill, committment, and passion.

I live by the mantra "nothing breeds success, like success". In a high school math class many of the students are unmotivated because they are convinced (sometimes told by a teacher), that they "can not do math". If I accept them where they are, challenge them a bit, support them where they need it, and make sure they have some success, then they start to try even harder.

It is not easy when all of the "partners" (students, teachers, parents, admin., community)are not trying together, but that is reality. Teaching is all about what goes on in the classroom no matter what the obstacles. Our thoughts and attitudes influence our actions, and if we don't truly believe some of our students can learn because of what is going on in their life, they won't. We need to stop concentrating on all the stumbling blocks in the way of our students succeeding, except to figure out how we can get them out of the way (or go around them). I BELIEVE WE CAN DO IT! Do You?

Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Education Community Notion

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Ben:

Indeed I've been developing the concept of what I have been calling an Education Community that includes all the groups in my initial comments together with interested local citizens you note in reply. Other than willingness to get involved, I have suggested one additional constraint: willingness to work for a BETTER ALTERNATIVE, one that everyone involved truly believes is better than they were championing at the start of the effort. You may recognize this notion is from the writings of Stephen Covey. I can expand if you / others are interested.

MY QUESTION TO YOU AND OTHER READERS OF THIS BLOG ENTRY: Do you or anyone else know of any local efforts similar to the Education Community I'm outlining? If so, references and/or contact information would be great!

Very well said James.

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Very well said James.

Thank you as well

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0

Thank you Ben,
for your thoughtful and even handed reply to my over-zealousness. I don't imagine my sarcastic sense of humor helps either. As is often the case in Op-Ed pieces,the commentor which in this case was me, is over the top in his or her attempt to make a point. I think perhaps I wasted too much time criticizing when I should've been adding to your very valuable statements.
Your patience is admirable,
Thank you
Richard

High School Math

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Anyone can impart knowledge, but teaching requires skill, committment, and passion.

I live by the mantra "nothing breeds success, like success". In a high school math class many of the students are unmotivated because they are convinced (sometimes told by a teacher), that they "can not do math". If I accept them where they are, challenge them a bit, support them where they need it, and make sure they have some success, then they start to try even harder.

It is not easy when all of the "partners" (students, teachers, parents, admin., community)are not trying together, but that is reality. Teaching is all about what goes on in the classroom no matter what the obstacles. Our thoughts and attitudes influence our actions, and if we don't truly believe some of our students can learn because of what is going on in their life, they won't. We need to stop concentrating on all the stumbling blocks in the way of our students succeeding, except to figure out how we can get them out of the way (or go around them). I BELIEVE WE CAN DO IT! Do You?

Florida mathematics teacher

most above average?

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I'm sorry, this is a bit off topic, but my left brain math geekness is kicking in and I can't let that go...

I understand what you meant, but the only way for most data points to be above average is if the low end points are so dismally low that the mean is actually skewed by low outliers. If all the levels are moved to the right, as would occur on a bell curve, the mean is also moved to the right, which is the desired condition; however, the average on a bell curve is still in the middle of the data points.

I know, I'm obsessive about math concepts - just ask my students, or anyone else of my acquaintance. I had an interesting discussion with our local weatherman recently when he gave the probability of rain but said he was giving the odds.

Administrator, author and educator

Make em thirsty

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Linda:

Good Point! We make the students thirsty enough to drink the water available.

Up until the fourth or fifth grade, making students thirsty is fairly easy to do. Students of that age are naturally thirsty for knowledge. The trick is to keep making them thirsty for knowledge as they continue their learning careers. I have my own theories on why it becomes more difficult, but mostly, I think that teachers are our own worst enemies. We worry about student control so much that we kill their creativity, ingenuity, enjoyment and fun. We don't trust the students to know the limits and have a balance of enjoyment and hard work of learning. We program their time and their actions to such a high degree that they don't have to think, they just have to follow directions.

Keeping curiosity alive is how to maintain that constant thirst for knowledge. Learning has to be interesting, or at least have the potential of being interesting at the end, even though getting there might be disagreeable and hard work.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Administrator, author and educator

Bell Curve

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Hello I, Praetorian:

First of all, thank you for your obvious dedication to students and their well being as a whole. One of the major reasons that we become teachers is because we want to help. I agree that there is a whole range of varying quality of teachers and counselors, and I am glad that you consider yourself at the top of the bell curve. Being popular and liked is only a small reward for your efforts.

I would encourage you to not get dismayed at the seemingly insurmountable tasks that have been placed before you. As another responder stated, we do not see the results of our efforts immediately. None of your efforts are wasted, even on the students that do not appear to respond.

Given the Bell Curve of teacher quality, student performance is the only indicator of effectiveness that we can rely upon. I heard in Washington DC, that 400 teachers were dismissed, almost 200 for not being correctly certified, and the other 200 for being ineffective in raising student scores. The teachers union is crying foul because there are so many variables that they can't blame the teachers for the lack of student performance. The district is holding firm because they have identified teachers that are effective with the same types of students and get this... they are rewarding those teachers! The bell curve assumes that most of the teachers/students are going to be mediocre to average, a few are exceptional and a few are terrible. It is time the Bell curve be skewed to have most of the students and teachers, above average and exceptional and a few mediocre and terrible. That will never happen in a milieu of minimum standards, blame throwing.

Do not lose the vision of the starfish thrower. Students are saved one at a time, and it does make a difference to each. Stay positive and improve what you have control of and you will find fulfillment.

Thanks for the post!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Quote:

Hello Ben,

I really have to take issue with the over used glittering generality that the personality of a given teacher will make or break all of the variables that go into the education and socialization of any one student. I have been both a classroom teacher and a school counselor in a very progressive school counseling program. I am quite probably the biggest eighth-grader on my campus and I know that I do make a difference with a very small number of kids via my determination and sense of humor. But on the whole it does not change the fact that some of my kids come to school hungry, even though my school is in a fairly affluent area. Some of my kids have home life's that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. And the majority of my kids come from homes where education is taken for granted and parents are not willing to even engage let alone win the battle for behavioral control of their children. In my district there are approximately 80 counselors. Without exaggerating I am easily within the top five of those 80. Yet I have to be content with and live with the knowledge that I can only affect change in a small minority of the total population of my caseload even though most of my kids like and trust me. Our program lead the nation and set the standards adopted by ASCA .

I guess because of my political involvement in the district and community I work in, I am somewhat cynical in general but very very offended by another incorrect statement regarding teachers turned into a comment or worse yet a story. your statement like so many others about education is neither correct nor is it fair to all the hard-working individuals who chose education not for the summers off but for the opportunity to make a change in the lives of those few but desperately needy young people. Even still I find my work more rewarding now under the unbearable burden of financial cuts and voter apathy. This is still truly my passion but I am an realist when it comes to public education.

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