Actually, It’s YOUR Fault


“The kids don’t want to do anything.”

“They are SO unmotivated.”

“They don’t care.”

“I put in all this effort and they do nothing.”

When I hear things like that from other teachers, I recoil, sometimes too visibly to be diplomatic, bite my tongue, and count to 5. To me, these are the unfounded complaints of a teacher who has lost his/her way and has given up on his/her students. And quite frankly, I don’t want to hear it!

To varying degrees, we all go through frustration and aggravation in our jobs. There are all the things we can’t control, like district mandates, administrative policies, apathetic parents, lack of funding/supplies, and burdensome paperwork. These are facts of the profession that, to a very tiny degree, can be helped by our own efforts to change them creatively or through our own efficiency.

The thing that we do control that can be helped by our efforts more than anything is our approach to teaching.

I had a talk today with a teacher from another school who lamented all of the above complaints about her fifth graders. I listened politely, externally projecting empathy while simultaneously turning questions over in my head ranging from, “Is this really their fault?” to “What do you plan to do about it?”

When she finished, I shared with her one of my growing credos about the field: You can’t blame the kids.

She said she’s tried to match her teaching to each child’s preferred learning style and doesn’t know what to do anymore. She said, “They’re only 10, and they’ve already given up.”

I said, “They’re only 10, and you’ve already given up.”

My advice was this: you can do more. Figure it out. Also, remember, so much of what the kids need to do nowadays is boring. I asked her to put herself in the students’ shoes and continue from there. And I challenged her to remember why she got into the profession in the first place.

Let’s face it. Once you lose sight of that, you might as well close your plan book for the last time and walk out the door.

Kids are, by nature, inquisitive sponges who want to learn about anything they can. We can’t control what we teach them, but we can surely control how we do it. Even within the mandates of a school, you have to be creative enough to come up with ways to reach kids in your own style and their’s.

Don’t sit there and blame the kids. If they see you don’t want to be there in front of them, there’s no way they’re going to want to be there in front of you.

So what are you going to do about it? Sit there and complain about how miserable your class is this year?

Or reevaluate yourself as a teacher and figure out the best ways to help the students thrive?

If you don’t do the latter, there’s only one person to blame.

And it’s not the 10 year old.

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6 responses to “Actually, It’s YOUR Fault

  1. I think there’s a lot of truth to what you’re saying, and I don’t know the context of your friend’s school but teachers at my school express similar sentiments. For the teachers at my school, I feel this frustration stems from three things:

    1., they are teaching a population they have no training in (i.e., they only have childhood ed degrees, or maybe special ed, but nothing for ESL) and often don’t even realize their frustration stems from lack of support in this way.

    2., they have been trained in/forced to use a curriculum they don’t believe in and doesn’t serve the kids and they see no alternative.

    3., the fact that, nationwide, teachers are under a well-funded, menacing ASSAULT in the most intense ways, and they’re being held responsible for weighty things to an insanely unfair degree, and they feel paralyzed/powerless to combat it.

    So, yes, they often end up blaming the kids, which is wrong and unhelpful. But it’s, unfortunately, easier than looking at and taking on the whole rotten system they’re working within — and that kind of immensity induces blindness.

    I don’t totally blame the teacher. I don’t really think *anymore* that it comes down to that one individual all the time. I have come to believe that most teachers who say things like that would be SO much better if they were working within a different system. And that’s ultimately what I think of when I talk about “fault”.

    • Your comments are always worth reading and I’m so grateful you took the time to leave them. Here are my thoughts on the points you made:

      1. I think you’re right that many teachers are over their heads with their student population. There is definitely an onus on administrators to get this right for the benefit of the kids. However, teachers also need to play the hand they’re dealt, so to speak, and seek out appropriate assistance from coaches, colleagues, and others who can help them improve. I’ve had to do it myself this year. It’s not easy to do, but it’s made me a better teacher and person.

      2. No one can dispute the curriculum issue, but I think most would not accept someone saying “There is no alternative.” We all teach things that don’t necessarily jive with what we want to teach (or feel we need to), but I like to think everyone can figure out ways to work within the system to meet learners’ needs. It takes extra work (which you’re no stranger to, nor are you afraid of).

      3. Paralyzed and powerless? To an extent, yes. Perhaps the folks in Madison will inspire others to a degree to speak out against people who attack teachers. Or, perhaps people will keep their immediate concerns – their students – more in the forefront of their mind. Easily said, but not easily done. I struggle with it myself.

      I think you summed up my point up nearly perfectly when you began to say it’s easy to blame the kids. I’d only take exception with your second point there. Maybe instead of looking at the system, teachers who complain about their kids can look at something that’s smaller and can be changed much easier: themselves.

      • Ok, a quick reply 🙂

        1. There is not a single coach at schools like mine (and Queens has a lot) trained in the specific needs of ELLs, so teachers have no one to turn to.

        2. I have been told, basically, that my AP trusts me to teach however I want, including moving away from the workshop model if need be. But most teachers I know, especially those without tenure, are being watched like HAWKS if they so much as budge from the TC script. So, while some teachers may be capable of teaching like a two-headed monster — teaching their own way “when the door is closed” and teaching the mandated way during every observation and snapshot, I don’t think all can or even should.

        3. To the utmost extent. Look at Madison. Teachers were camping outside the government buildings and chanting in the halls during the anti-union votes and who won? At my school teachers don’t even want to go to a measly rally.

        And I think if the problem is the system, then change the system. Because just as it’s easy to blame the kids, it’s easy to make the problem so small it never makes any real difference and the cycle continues.

  2. I appreciate your “look at your role in the problem” spirit and wish more people did it more reflectively and more frequently, BUT at the risk of sounding like I’m defending a “blame the kids” approach, sometimes — and maybe it’s more prevalent in high school — they do need to bring a lot more to the table than they’re bringing. Now we can talk for hours about factors that contribute to that (e.g. experiences with folks maybe not as committed as I am basically turning them off to school in general), but I think we need to be careful about absolutes here. A lot of times this kind of stuff goes too far and we need to find a balance. No one I know is more passionate about teaching than I am or puts more time into it than I do, but c’mon — sometimes with all the exigencies, you can’t blame people for periods of dejection, and “proactive apathy” can be common among large numbers of teenagers. Again, there are reasons for that, but I think sometimes, in an effort to be reflective, accountable, etc. we over-absolve other factors.

    • Brian, you make great points and I agree that as kids get older they become more disinterested due to whatever variety of factors they have weighing on them. But, speaking for my own experiences in elementary schools, we simply can’t chalk up children’s perceived apathy to the same factors. They are still very much excitable about so much. (This is one more reason why, admittedly, I couldn’t teach high school).

      • Younger kids are indeed more excitable, but do they lack intrinsic motivation? Yes. Does far too many of the problems stem from habits practiced and reinforced at home, including (often) a view that education ultimately doesn’t make that much of a difference? Yes. Are teachers capable of changing that just by changing their approach in the classroom? Not in my opinion. Larger problems require larger solutions, like the involvement of administrators, etc.

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