A High School Teacher Learns About Teaching

While reading a blog post about teaching high school math, this caught my attention:

I tend to stay pretty focused on teaching; rarely do I give A Talk. Today . . . I made an exception.

[teacher] “What is it you think I want?”

[student] “You want me to shut up.” . . .

[teacher] “Why?”

[student] “Because it’s your job!”

[teacher] “Because I want everyone to pass this class.”

The class’s sudden silence [made me realize] that my remark had [had] an impact. . . .

I adopt my students’ values and goals, rather than insist they adopt mine. [emphasis added. To be sure, this is an overstatement — the truth is teacher/student compromise — but you get the point.] The kids were shocked into silence [because] they realized that my most heartfelt goal was to pass everyone in the class. I learned a key lesson I still use every time I meet a new class [–] make it clear I want to help them achieve their goals, which usually involve surviving the class.

I was unclear what the “key lesson” was so — I have edited the quote to make it clearer — so I asked the teacher blogger, who replied

The key lesson is explicitly state that I adopt my students’ values and goals, rather than insist they adopt mine. My students’s awareness that I want to give them value as they define it is essential to creating the classroom environment I want.

When I began working full time as a public school teacher [after years doing test prep], I had much tougher kids [than in test prep], and my classes were not as comfortable as I was used to. It was the emptiness or worse, hostility, I got from enough of the students that bothered me. I enjoyed teaching. But I felt something missing around the edges that I’d always felt–expected–from my classrooms, and I couldn’t even really spell out what was lacking—not gone, just not universal. I didn’t know why.

So in that moment [when I told my students that my goal was to help them reach their goals] I realized that one of my greatest teaching strengths was completely under the radar [= not noticed] not only to the toughest of my public school students, but to *me*. Many of my toughest public school students, the ones that had tracking bracelets or a long history of suspensions or just three years of repeated failures—hell, not only didn’t they realize that I wanted them to achieve their academic goals, they didn’t realize they HAD academic goals, since no one had ever told them that just “passing the class” was an allowable goal. I’d never realized how essential that understanding was to the rapport and engagement I had with kids until I experienced teaching without it.

I’ve only rarely experienced that alienation or hostility since [I learned to be explicit about my priorities]. I still have to be tough and snarl and yell. But now my public school classes give me the same sense of affinity, of understanding, that my test-prep classes did.

All or almost all teachers want their kids to do well. But teachers usually define “doing well” by their own ruler, and set their goals higher than is realistic–and so are often disappointed. I think most people [including high school teachers] don’t understand the degree to which high school students feel their choices in school are completely out of their control. They can’t choose most classes, they are “helped” by giving them more of the classes they hate (double math periods for strugglers).

This supports my view that teaching is much easier when you try to help students reach their goals than when you try to get them to reach your goals. Few teachers I know have figured this out — at best, they get to different students learn differently and stop. I think it’s the beginning of wisdom about teaching. I eventually found, after years of experimentation, that (a) my students’s goals overlapped mine well enough to be acceptable to onlookers and (b) their innate desire to reach those goals was strong enough that there was no need to grade them.

5 Replies to “A High School Teacher Learns About Teaching”

  1. I enjoyed a story arc in “The Wire” in which a teacher got kids interested in math by showing them how an understanding of probability could earn them money at playing craps.

  2. Seems rather a tale of an egocentric teacher publicly praising himself for his supposed selfless devotion to his students values and goals.

    Many student, especially Elijah, quite understandably hated high school math… and wanted out of this teacher’s classroom. The teacher had exactly zero empathy and support for that clearly stated ‘value’.

    Instead, the teacher proclaimed his own ‘teacher-value’ to the class — “everyone to pass this class” … even if they don’t ever like or understand algebra… and that somehow this algebra-classroom-experience would most certainly improve their lives ever after.

    In fact, algebra & geometry are of no practical use to most people in their entire personal lives. Most American K-12 “education” is merely social ritual. The students correctly assessed they were wasting their time in that algebra classroom.

    But the teacher-bureaucrat could only see the arbitrary syllabus and daily disciplining of his captive audience… while arrogantly pretending to be empowering the values of his students.

  3. Rollins, you are absolutely right that “algebra & geometry are of no practical use to most people in their entire personal lives” and that in that sense the students “were wasting their time in that algebra classroom.”

    However, in terms of getting a credential, you are absolutely wrong. They need to pass algebra to graduate and they need a high school diploma to get considered for many, many jobs–even if the job has nothing to do with algebra. The American legal system allows, even encourages, that. Education Realist’s students don’t want to be shut out of the “good jobs.”

    ER knows all this. Don’t hate the player; hate the game.

  4. Thanks, Roger.

    Rollins, you wound me! I hate reading self-congratulatory teachers. I was doing exactly the opposite of that. I was explaining my priorities in the context of a debate of reform vs. traditional math (I ascribe to neither camp). Seth asked me to elaborate in email, and I stressed several times that I didn’t want to sound like a pompous teacher doing some narcissistic backpatting.

    But the reality is that most math teachers believe, passionately, in their subject. They believe that the solution to the achievement gap is to raise standards, work hard, and love math. Education reformers also believe that the problem is low standards, that all kids could learn math if they had good teachers.

    I am explaining a priority set that is quite different. Seth asked me to elaborate on one particular piece of that.

    It’s pretty ludicrous to paint me as a teacher who believes in arbitrary curriculum standards, since I regularly post that I do exactly the opposite.

  5. ” It’s pretty ludicrous to paint me as a teacher who believes in arbitrary curriculum standards…”


    All curriculum/syllabus standards are arbitrary & subjective everywhere and always.

    It is impossible for them to be otherwise.

    Inability to grasp this basic fact leads to huge conceptual errors in “education”, “teaching”, “student status”, “values”, “priority sets”, “math”, “science”, “history”, etc, etc.

    There are a million subjects that ‘could’ be taught in high-school, with a vast array of possible learning methods. Even the ‘need’ for a teacher is totally arbitrary, as are despotic truancy laws depriving students of basic human liberty.

    No matter how valuable somebody believes a subject may be– there are only 24 hours in a day, and an arbitrary decision to teach one subject (algebra ?) is also a decision NOT to teach a million other subjects.

    Most high-school and college curricula and teaching methods have barely changed since medieval times. The denizens of the educational-establishment can not see the big picture and have an extremely narrow view of “education reform” and student values/choices/freedoms.

Comments are closed.