Saving Our Students from Ourselves

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In a recent conversation with a colleague I admitted I've been having doubts about myself as a teacher. We began discussing ways of learning; we'd clearly had different experiences. I was sure I learned best when engaged in informal conversations about material with my peers, while she very much valued classroom time with a teacher who explicitly expressed belief in her ability to learn.

I realized that we also were describing how we teach. While she devotes considerable time and energy to expressing that same belief to her students, I generally operate under the assumption that my students are much more affected by their own faith in their abilities than mine.

I left wondering to what extent we have to save our students from ourselves. My own (largely successful) experience with education shouldn't convince anybody that the same experience can be or ought to be replicated for other students. One is simply too small a sample size.

Certainly, I would have thrived in a classroom like mine -- small group activities, lots of conversation, little homework -- but there are a number of students in my classroom who struggle. Perhaps they're visual learners who simply don't benefit from or engage in whole-class discussions, or maybe they need guided homework assignments to help them learn how to study or to identify gaps in understanding.

Whatever the case, there is something about the classroom and lessons I've created that is not meeting the needs of these students. And much of that is due to my inability to imagine an education different from my own.

The teacher I am is indelibly marked by the learner I am.

I thought about this again when I read Richard Rothstein's recent essay in The American Prospect, "Joel Klein's Misleading Autobiography". Rothstein argues that Klein, the former city schools chancellor, has repeatedly drawn upon a distorted account of his own life to promote the argument that "the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents' income -- it is the quality of their teacher."

Klein, who grew up in Queens, cites a high school physics teacher as the reason he realized that "demography need not be destiny" -- a realization that allowed him to leave behind his seemingly indifferent upbringing and make it to Columbia University, Harvard Law School, and eventually, his position as chancellor. As a physics teacher myself, I would love for a former student to credit me with that kind of realization but I have to admit I consider it unlikely.

Rothstein, piece by piece, discredits Klein's story of making it out of an inner city school and a public housing project, writing that, "Klein didn't overcome demographic odds; he fulfilled them. He was a student who then, like now, enjoyed family resources and values that predict academic success." According to Rothstein, Klein had an upbringing similar to his own: "privileged, not perhaps in money but in what sociologists term 'social capital.'"

Rothstein criticizes Klein for using this story of his childhood as evidence that teachers, not socioeconomic status, are the primary determinant of student success. If that's true, we don't need to concern ourselves with poverty, health care, or gang-related violence, we just need to get good teachers in our schools and bad teachers out. Problem solved.

For a student like Klein, this may very well have been sufficient. A good teacher made the difference. But our students are individuals and their needs vary. Klein, whether his account is factual or not, has drawn upon his own experience as sufficient proof that good teachers can change the course of a child's life.

Part of me hopes he's right. I have to believe that the quality of my teaching makes a difference in the lives of my students. Still, I know that in my own classroom, my experiences as a student have sometimes limited my educational approach. I have to strive to imagine other ways of learning and adjust my curriculum accordingly. We cannot hope to address the individual needs of our students if we continue to act with the misguided belief that they simply need whatever it is that worked for us.