Monday, April 11, 2011

Influencing students

This past weekend I had a rather unique experience, so I am going to write about that instead of trying to connect with P.J,’s last entry. There may be some overlap, but it is purely conicidental.

I intend to reflect on an amazing experience I had yesterday. One of my former students, Elliot Damashek, was honored by Stanford University for being in the top 5% of the engineering students in this year’s graduating class. All such students are awarded the Frederick Terman Award. Each of the twenty-one recipients invited a Stanford Professor and a high school teacher to a luncheon and awards ceremony at Stanford. Yes, that means they flew people from all over the world, including Bombay and Malaysia, to Palo Alto for this award. I was honored to be selected by Elliot as a teacher who influenced him during his high school years.

First, it is rare and remarkable that a University is willing to spend this much time and effort, as well as money, to honor secondary school teachers. All of us were thankful to Stanford for doing this, and we all returned home proud of our work and eager to continue doing what we can to help students reach their potential.

All sixty three participants said a few words. The professors introduced the students, and uniformly praised their work ethic and intelligence. But after those two qualities were extolled, each student emerged as an individual, with strengths and perhaps some weaknesses that were unique to them. And each of them had accomplished amazing things, beyond grades earned.

Then the students introduced the teachers, and it became clear that many of the students believed that they were successful at Stanford because of the influence this particular teacher had on their lives. Rarely was that influence focused on content taught. It was always about the concern the teacher had shown for students, and for the speaker in particular. The teachers were not all math and science teachers, either. There were philosophy, government, history, Latin teachers—and a shop teacher—among those mentioned. One woman was a middle school math teacher. All of the stories made me proud to be a teacher.

I realized that sometimes society thinks that the “gifted” will take care of themselves. Anyone can be a successful teacher to “smart, motivated kids”. I agree it is a different task to reach these students than to reach the under-motivated, recalcitrant students, but it is no less important and not any easier to reach the high-acheivers; it is just different.

These twenty-one students are going to change the world one way or another. They are clever, committed, and motivated. Most of them are planning on working in areas that need attention. Some have already created products that meet the needs of society. They will cure diseases, create healthier food, find ways to protect the environment, work to create peaceful, safe environments.

At least: that is what I heard those twenty-one students talking about yesterday. It was exhilarating to meet these young men and women who are dedicated to using their talents to make the world a better place. And I am glad that I had the chance to be part of the life of one of those students.

The work teachers do with each and every student is important, each in its own way. Our influence is not so much on the specific content we teach, but on the attitudes we pass along to our students, the way we treat them and the way they see us treat everyone else, and the things they know that we value. They know our values because they watch us interact with their classmates over a long period of time. And what we do makes a big difference. Perhaps more than we ever know. These students talked about the character of their teachers, not how well organized they were, or how carefully planned their lessons were.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

St. Jude of the Classroom

"O most holy apostle, Saint Jude, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, the Church honoureth and invoketh thee universally, as the patron of hopeless cases, and of things almost despaired of. ... Make use, I implore thee, of that particular privilege accorded to thee, to bring visible and speedy help where help was almost despaired of."

An integral part of my experience as a teacher has been struggling with apparently-hopeless cases, and by "cases" I mean students.  These struggles are before, after, and during school: chasing down kids for homework and time to catch up on math; sitting side-by-side puzzling out some theorem; talking, cajoling, entreating them to think ahead, to set priorities besides "what seems fun right now," and to follow up those priorities with action; listening to--or trying to tease out--the details of why the most recent boneheaded decision seemed reasonable at the time.  Some of these struggles have been successful, by some definitions of success, but--without resorting to a detailed tally--I suspect the successes are outnumbered. But these students matter: in fact, when I think about the students who have made the biggest impression on me over the years, about whom I find myself wondering "where is he now?", those "hopeless" students are in the majority.  I suspect that, among long-term teachers, I am not alone in feeling this way.

Today I'm wondering not about whether, but about why, how, and "so what?"  And, just to be clear, the hopeless cases I'm describing are not just "hopeless by the standards of gifted students" or "hopeless by prep school standards."  I'm talking about actual orphans, victims of acrimonious divorces, children who bounce from one underserved home and neighborhood to another,.... Their behaviors reflect the broken circumstances in which they find themselves:  whether because they're unwilling, unable, or uninformed, they don't work outside of class, don't successfully advocate for themselves, don't set and follow through on short-term or long-term goals, ... They are, in short, hard cases.

Why?  The reasons why I'm drawn to these students are the reasons I'm a teacher:
  1. I want to improve the lives of young people.
  2. I don't believe that teachers should be in the business of giving up on kids or writing them off.  I think the evidence is that we do a poor job of identifying who can and can't "make it", except for the self-fulfilling nature of those very prophecies.
  3. At some level, it's hard to accept that there are things I can't do.  Taking on a challenging student is to take on a challenge.  And yes, this shades into hubris: it's hard to believe there's a student I can't reach.
  4. I want to be "that teacher": when that kid gets a Grammy, or wins a Pulitzer, or snags a Fields Medal, or just looks back on his high school years from the perspective of a reasonably well-managed and -adjusted adulthood, I want him or her to say "It was Mr. K who turned me around."
So an important part of "why?" is this: I seek out this role for reasons that have as much or more to do with me as they have to do with actually helping the student.  But accepting my own complicity at a personal level doesn't address broader, social concerns.
  1. Our society doesn't believe in giving up on children.
  2. Our society shouldn't believe in giving up on children. The vast majority of circumstances that make these students lives' difficult are also totally outside their control.  How can we tell a high school student that, after failing to provide him with a decent home, a decent wage for his parents, a decent neighborhood to live in, and decent elementary schools, we're writing him off as a doomed high school student?
  3. Some--many--kids in apparently-hopeless circumstances do in fact turn out okay, which benefits everyone. So increasing that number is an important priority.
Still, these decisions have costs:
  1. At the moment, I'm giving as much time to teaching as I have.  So the situation is genuinely zero-sum: if I spend more time with one student, that's less time I have to spend with another, or on planning lessons that will impact the entire class.
  2. Similarly, at the societal level, unless we're willing to vastly increase the resources we allocate to public education, increasing the allocation for the weakest students means, at least in the short term, decreasing the allocation for other students.
  3. Both as individuals and as a group, many of these students are capable of succeeding.  In fact, part of my unwillingness to write them off is that I don't trust my ability--or anyone else's, really--to make good, non-self-fulfilling predictions about who will succeed. As a society, we can't afford to squander talent; as an individual, I hate to see it go to waste.
This has already been a long post, so I'm going to stop here and ask readers for feedback.  Who are the students to whom you feel drawn?  Why do you feel that way?  And are you mostly successful?

More--the "how" and "so what?"--on this topic later.  Post your thoughts in the comments!