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Student Commitment Depends on Teacher Commitment

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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 (34)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Joanne Yatvin's picture
Joanne Yatvin
Retired teacher and administrator

Just because a handful of teachers out of more than three million nationwide have been able to work miracles does not mean that all-- or even many others-- can do the same. For a number of reasons, some students in ordinary classrooms do not learn as well or as much as their teachers would like. This is particularly true of high school students who care less about pleasing their teachers or parents and more about being like their peers than younger children do. Like Ben Johnson, too many reformers and school critics have forgotten the first rule of attempting to influence the behavior of other people: "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink,"

Dave Bender's picture
Dave Bender
High School Government/History teacher from Oakland, Md.

All teachers should not be expected to be "superheroes" like Escalante and Swanson. But teachers and all "schools" should expect that all students can learn and WILL learn. It is the school administrations job to create an effective professional learning community where every student gets or is directed to receieve the "time and resources" necessary for all students to learn. With effective leadership, school structure, AND healthy attitudes - teachers can have the same results as "superhero" teachers without having to have "superhero" powers.

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


I understand what you are saying, but I disagree. Catherine and Jaime would never say they had "super powers." They were just determined to get their students to learn. I must caution you about laying the blame for lack of learning on the administration. If only... is not something you can control. You CAN control how you inspire learning in your individual classroom-- and that is the key to becoming one of those heroic teachers.

Good luck on developing those "super powers!"

Ben Johnson,
San Antonio, TX

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

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