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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Commitment Depends on Teacher Commitment

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

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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