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!