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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.

Comments (33)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Constructivism is founded on free agency. I agree with you absolutely. Students need choice, and one of those choices is to fail. That does not mean that we have to resign ourselves to that, nor does it mean we wallow in despair. I am sure Mary Catherine Swanson and Jaime Escalante had their failures, i.e. the students who chose to fail rather than succeed. I would venture to say that no student starts the semester with the goal of failing a class. Perhaps the leading of the horse isn't the problem. Maybe it is the water that is giving the student horses second thoughts. Hmmm. Thanks for the post.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Yes of course the commitment must be there from both teachers and students. Indeed I would add two other groups: administrators must be committed to teachers in support of learning AND parents must be committed to their children's learning as well. Let me point out the obvious - even being committed to learning, each group is pulled to other mandates making the task so much harder, bordering on the "only if we get a mircicle" level.

But what's NOT happening are the four groups cooperating and working for the common goal: optimization of effective learning for all. Rather, may I suggest what is heard and read is fingerprinting and "copping out" because of mandates! My notion is that these four groups together with others such as local people with knowledge / experience and interested local citizens come together in what I've been calling an Education Community. Besides each individual being willing to engage, the only other requirement is that each person agree to work toward the best alternative FOR DEALING WITH THE LOCAL ISSUES (and NOT simply demanding their solution be chosen. Stephen Covey and others strongly believe the alternative chosen for action after identifying the issues, understanding those issues, brainstorming possible plans, and choosing the final alternative will be seen by all parties truly involved to be better than the position each was championing at the start of the effort. Subsequent implementation accompanied by ongoing assessment and justified ongoing refinement will get th best results fastest. Of course, it will never be fast enough but it will happen.

I want to say how good I felt when the original commentary never hinted that teachers needed to commit to TEACHING the students - something that for example cannot be accomplished without some student commitment (along with the same from other groups identified above). The verbs used with teacher efforts are doable. From Ben's other commentaries, I'm quite sure the choice of verbs was carefully done.

Tassie's picture

I agree with you that students learn so much more in school than what is actually taught to the. This implicit curriculum is what teaches them to survive in school. Sometimes it may be good like learning better study habits or to be more respectful of other but like you mentioned they can also learn how to get out of things that they don't want to do. I like that you mentioned teachers and students sharing responsibility to learn in the classroom. I think that all students will want to learn if they are just motivated to do so. It is our job to fin what is their motivation and use it to teach them the best we can.

DuWayne Krause's picture

Some of the previous comments are distressing. I don't assume I have, or need parent support to be successful. Unless administration is actively working against teacher authority(yes this does happen) I don't put any responsibility for the learning that goes on in my classroom on administration. Too many teachers find it too easy to "throw away" kids and then throw up thier hands and say it's not my fault. I demand students succeed (I do force them to drink) and don't back down. On the other hand, I am always there for them. Over time, I almost always see change for good and kids come over to my side. Stand and Deliver changes do happen.

Joanne Yatvin's picture
Joanne Yatvin
Retired teacher and administrator

I agree with much of what you're saying, too. Teachers have the responsibility to do all they can to help students learn. (Notice that I didn't say "make" them learn.) I just don't like the idea of putting all the burden on teachers' shoulders. During the past school year I have been spending two or three days a week in the classrooms of good teachers in four high poverty elementary schools. Most of their students are doing very well--but not all. As I said in my earlier comment, there are many reasons why students don't learn, but it's rare that a student wants to fail. More often they just can't shake loose from all the things that are getting in the way or pulling them apart. I know that a couple of kids I see are homeless, living in overcrowded apartments with other families or in a shelter; others aren't getting enough to eat; still others are into the "gang" ethos even though they're only 5th graders.

As for the water, I think it's pretty foul in a lot of classrooms, and I wouldn't drink it myself. At the elementary level, many teachers are being forced to use scripted programs that make children's eyes glaze over. In middle school and high school, the pressure on teachers to offer "rigorous" courses pushes many students beyond their level of competency. I could go on citing other reasons why not all students learn--even with excellent teachers, but my main point is what I said above. Teachers should not have the total responsibility for student learning.

Linda Bailey's picture
Linda Bailey
Florida mathematics teacher

The responsibility for learning is shared by both teachers and students. This is true of many (most?) controversial topics; the answer is not an absolute, it is a blending of both sides. The clinging to absolutes is understandable; if both sides (teachers and students) see the responsiblity as being entirely with the "other" side, then any blame can be solely attributed to the "other" side. As a people, we all do tend to avoid finding fault with ourselves.

In fact, we all should shed the concepts of "us" and "them". If we start by assuming that the main arguments of both positions are true - that all students can learn, but you "can't make a horse drink", then it logically follows that what the teacher must necessarily do is make the "horse" thirsty. This is the main premise of my own educational philosophy. I am certain that my task as a teacher is largely to engender in my students a DESIRE to learn and a BELIEF that they can learn. To quote one of my Jaime Escalante videos, "math [or any other topic] is easy...anybody can do it." The key to successful teaching is to convince the students.

Ask any student why s/he doesn't apply him/herself in school and the answer will contain the word or the concept "can't". That is an incredibly powerful word in the mind of any person. It is amazing how motivated (and thirsty) a student becomes when the "can't" idea is disproved. This can be a difficult task for a teacher, particularly if it involves a change in mindset. The difficulty can increase with the age of the student, and some personal types of barriers that students may have. In the end, though, I think it is paramount that we teachers accept that teaching works best as a partnership with the students, even if the students are not aware that we are partners. We cannot give up on our students, because the day we say "s/he just won't try" or any variant of that idea, we have failed in a critical task.

James Mac Shane's picture

The first sentence says it all. Learning is life itself. Education is about the positive and negative unconscious and conscious choices that each teacher and student makes in the educationalo experience. The historic system expects the teacher to be able to overcome a student's history of negative survival choices. It can and does happen but not to the extent needed when we changed the educational goal as an intellectual elimination process to the intellectual development of every child.

The reason behind the success that is referred to is the result of respect of the student's natural potential and the teachers ability to pass the respect on to the student at their level of self-understanding and acceptance.

The idea of there being any value of a student's self-motivation is evolutionary in formal education history. The base of the present system is focused upon overcomming the student's internal motivation to our external goals. That historic goal is the most unscientific aspect of the present system and is evolutionary in human experience.

C. Brown's picture
C. Brown
Fifth grade teacher from Hayward, CA

Interesting comments. I believe most teachers are more effective than they think. Just because you don't see results immediately doesn't mean the information you relayed to your students didn't take root. The problem with movies is that they put 5 years in 2 hours and it seems like every student accepted responsibility for learning immediately. As a mom I've seen my children stubbornly resist teachers and parental advice, only to accept it wholeheartedly a year or two later. As an elementary student in the upper grades I always go back and tell those 1st, 2nd or 3rd grade teachers when one of my students has an "aha" moment from something they struggled with for years, but all of the sudden everything makes sense. The student and I know who planted the original seed of information. We mustn't make our students feel like failures for not blossoming at the same moment others do. Our current educational system wants results NOW, but a wise teacher knows to have PATIENCE.

I, Praetorian's picture

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.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Yes, the verbs were carefully chosen and I agree that our students are valuable enough to employ all of our resources, teachers, parents, administrators and the students themselves. I would add one more resource, the community at large. Everyone is busy, involved in survival, and focused on their own agendas, but, as we have observed, working as hard as we can individually, it is still not enough. The first hurdle that all of these five groups must overcome is the blame game. There is plenty of blame for everyone. Then mutual responsibility must be accepted. Finally, someone (a visionary superintendent or principal) must help the five groups come up with a coordinated and integrated plan of action and evaluation. This can only be done on a local level-the most grassroots you can get. This happens on the outside of the school environment, while other changes need to happen on the inside.

The concept of "teaching" has to be transformed from the stereotype of a teacher at the whiteboard giving instruction to a silent class, to the teacher among the noisy and active students as they acquire knowledge and skills. 10 percent of student learning should use the former strategy, while the vast majority of learning should employ the latter. Perhaps a better term to replace "teacher" would be Learning Engineer.

Great comments!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]Yes of course the commitment must be there from both teachers and students. Indeed I would add two other groups: administrators must be committed to teachers in support of learning AND parents must be committed to their children's learning as well.

I want to say how good I felt when the original commentary never hinted that teachers needed to commit to TEACHING the students - something that for example cannot be accomplished without some student commitment (along with the same from other groups identified above). The verbs used with teacher efforts are doable. From Ben's other commentaries, I'm quite sure the choice of verbs was carefully done.[/quote]

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