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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

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

Administration has an incredible effect on the classroom. I have worked in years when the morale was high and when it was unbelievably low. I've worked with strong competent administrators and completely incompetent and unjustifiably combative administration. You can guess which one was able to get the best results, you can't assign blame to teachers alone. I am totally willing to take responsibility for the learning in my room, but that room is in a school, in a district, in a state, in a country. I turn a completely deaf ear to administrators and politicians fail to take responsibility for their link in the chain.

Super heroes do not have families. If you analyze them they live quite dysfunctional lives.

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

Elif:

In any profession, there are those that are in it just to get the pay check, so money really isn't the issue. What did bother me is, because of my family size and earnings as a teacher, my children qualified for free and reduced lunch. Most teachers work summer jobs, their spouses work full time also. Teachers should get paid more just so they do not have to worry so much about doing extra, and can concentrate on being a good teacher.

It occurred to me that if we used the NFL system for acquiring our teachers, we would be rewarding the top teachers, and finding and retaining the very best teachers. At the same time, teachers would have to earn their place on the team and show what they can do in order to stay there. I can imagine school districts bidding on the top teachers and trying to create the most competitive instructional team possible. If you think districts are not in a competition now, you are dead wrong. In a community, it means a lot to have "Blue Ribbon" top scoring schools, economically, in real estate, in attracting businesses and industry. Something to think about...

Thanks for your passion. Love it!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]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?[/quote]

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

Cinthia:

You have avoided one of the most pernicious evils of mankind. Blame. Well done. Instead of saying that it is the fault of the parents, or earlier teachers, or the even the students, you understand that that is inconsequential and unimportant. You even eliminate the "we" all have to work together syndrome. You want help, and need it, but regardless if you get help or not, you are going to do what is in your power and within your energy and resources to accomplish student learning. That is self-actualization. You are amazing and we need more like you. Thanks for sharing a bit of your passion so the rest of us can be inspired.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

[quote]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.[/quote]

jhorn's picture

"It occurred to me that if we used the NFL system for acquiring our teachers, we would be rewarding the top teachers, and finding and retaining the very best teachers. At the same time, teachers would have to earn their place on the team and show what they can do in order to stay there. I can imagine school districts bidding on the top teachers and trying to create the most competitive instructional team possible."

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

Ms. Brown:

You probably do not realize how right you are. In fact, I am doing my doctoral study on the effect of principals on teacher collaboration. I have had the same feeling as you expressed for some time. The principal, although not directly affecting student learning, has an incredible effect on student learning through the interactions with the teachers. Principal leadership makes and breaks schools. The principal that understands how to inspire and support teachers in giving their best to the students will get increased student learning. Being an administrator does not mean that we relinquish being a teacher. Some teachers forget this. The best administrators use the very skills gained as a teacher on motivating the teachers to perform, just as they inspired and motivated the students to perform. Much depends on what kind of teacher the administrator was.

Does that mean that a teacher in a school with an incompetent administrator cannot be successful? Luckily, the turnover rate for poor administrators is quite high. One of the things that I wish pre-service training would cover is how teachers need to be instructional leaders. If you think about the reason for administrators as instructional leaders it is because the teachers are not being instructional leaders due to inexperience or lack of interest. I believe that gung-ho, self-actualized teachers could run the instruction of the school very well without an administrator, but because there is always an administrator, the teachers feel that it is not their job. Now take such a group of teachers and add a truly transformational leader, wow, just imagine what could happen.

The principal has three duties: 1) make sure the teachers have the support, materials and teaching tools necessary to do their jobs 2) Maintain a vision and the quality control of the vision, 2) Establish norms of behavior that increase morale. It sound simple but it becomes quite a balancing act with limited time and resources. The most important of the three is the morale, because that affects all of the other areas.

It is obvious that you support and appreciate good administrators. You would probably make a good administrator yourself, you know we need them.

Thanks for your comments.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Administration has an incredible effect on the classroom. I have worked in years when the morale was high and when it was unbelievably low. I've worked with strong competent administrators and completely incompetent and unjustifiably combative administration. You can guess which one was able to get the best results, you can't assign blame to teachers alone. I am totally willing to take responsibility for the learning in my room, but that room is in a school, in a district, in a state, in a country. I turn a completely deaf ear to administrators and politicians fail to take responsibility for their link in the chain.

Super heroes do not have families. If you analyze them they live quite dysfunctional lives.[/quote]

KerrisS's picture
KerrisS
High School Mathematics/Reading Teacher

As an educator, I have always taken my students learning personal. Students coming into my class have already been warned that "Ms. Satchell doesn't play the radio," in other words I don't take crap. All students entering my classroom will learn, and they know this, I am giving 100% and expect the same from them. I have noticed that if you set high expectations for your students, they will aim to reach them especially if they know you BELIEVE in them. We must let our students know how we feel about them, get to know each student individually, in doing so, students will open up more, and embrace our teaching. We must STOP making excuses and start teaching so that all our students are successful.
I have been inspired by Mr. Escalante, and hope that I can be like him one day.

Luke's picture
Luke
9th grade math teacher from ND

I agree that we as teachers need to give 100% and we need to expect the same from all of our students. I also believe that it is crucial that all of our students know we believe in them and want them to succeed. If our students see how passionate we are for our subject area and how we can relate our content to their everyday lives, it makes them want to learn more. I also like to use humor in my classroom and make each lesson fun. I teach math and many students come in thinking math is hard and saying "when will I ever use this". Because of this I try to always show them a positive attitude in math and try to keep things fun but challenging everyday.

Josh's picture
Josh
5th grade elementary teacher from Mascoutah, Illinois

I believe the more passionate and into the material we are teaching, the more engaged the students will become. Even if they do not like it, they might wonder why we like it so much and tune in instead of tune out. Humor is a huge thing I use in my classroom. Mt students have already commented on how much they enjoy the humor and how they feel it keeps them engaged while they learn. I also show them that the values of learning and why they need to know it not just for the future, but for right now. They are more apt to learn the material if it applies to them now than if it applies to them in the "future." In my opinion, it IS my responsibility for the student's learning. If my students do not do well, I am looking at how I can be better at teaching that area they did not do well on. It is my job to find out what grabs and reaches them so they do learn the material. Learning is a partnership between the student and teacher, but the teacher needs to hold their end of the bargin up so that student can be successful.

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

Josh:

You and I are on the same page. I think that if the teacher is not having fun in the classroom with the students then the students obviously are not going to be having fun either. Teachers have to be excited and enthusiastic about what they teach, so much so that their students will also be enthusiastic about learning. I have seen a few teachers who have that sparkle and pizazz. Unfortunately, I have seen so many more that drone on like robots and the students don't care.

When I hired teachers, even if the teacher had experience, great college transcripts and great references, if I did not see that enthusiasm in their eyes when they talked about teaching, then I did not hire them.

Regarding humor, I loved to tell my students jokes, in Spanish of course. They thought it was weird at first, mainly because they didn't understand the jokes even after I translated them. After a while, the students started thinking more out of the box, looking at the culture differently, and they began to understand not only the words, but the real reasons the jokes were funny.

If you understand that enthusiasm and humor are essential, you are having exceptional experiences in your classroom. Keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I believe the more passionate and into the material we are teaching, the more engaged the students will become. Even if they do not like it, they might wonder why we like it so much and tune in instead of tune out. Humor is a huge thing I use in my classroom. Mt students have already commented on how much they enjoy the humor and how they feel it keeps them engaged while they learn. I also show them that the values of learning and why they need to know it not just for the future, but for right now. They are more apt to learn the material if it applies to them now than if it applies to them in the "future." In my opinion, it IS my responsibility for the student's learning. If my students do not do well, I am looking at how I can be better at teaching that area they did not do well on. It is my job to find out what grabs and reaches them so they do learn the material. Learning is a partnership between the student and teacher, but the teacher needs to hold their end of the bargin up so that student can be successful.[/quote]

Frank Palatnick's picture
Frank Palatnick
Nobel Peace Prize Nominee 2008, Semi-Retired UN Advisor/Education

The Ron Clark Story, in my opinion, is an excellent example of teacher commitment. In order for students to learn the teacher must also learn. As shown in the docudrama Mr. Clark ' learned ' from the students as well. He got involved with their hobby's ( skipping rope) as well as their music ( creating a rap song about the presidents ). In order to be successful you must be extremely empathetic. Both the teacher and the student must learn. It should just be a one way conversation. Education equals the facilitation of the mind times collective compassion. That is copyrighted by me. Compassion, in my opinion, means ' to be moved by ' . In this particular arena teachers should be moved by the mind of the student.

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