Monday, May 21, 2007

Teacher's Pet

This morning's email of the Chronicle stories contains an essay about where a creative writing professors falls on the age-old question of how we spread our limited time and energy among our students who also have limited time and energy:

But is it so wrong to offer more attention, more feedback, to the student who seems to have the best chance of success? Not the one who wears the nicest clothes or has the famous mother or even the one who reminds you most of your young self. But the one who seems to have the talent and the perseverance and therefore the best chance of going forth and practicing his or her craft in a way that makes the university proud and the world a better place?

This question is especially important in the course I teach for pre-service teachers right before their semester-long professional semester centered around student teachers. By that point, they are seniors and should have at least a relatively clear understanding of where they are going in their professional lives given the numerous hoops, including national high stakes testing, they have to jump through to get to that point.

However, I often find that there are still amazingly few who are there because they have been rewarded either for being a nice kid or for working the system. It's not a question of whether they deserve to get to that point but, instead, a question of their willingness, or shall I say, unwillingness, to do what it takes to reach the finish line. I make it quite clear that if their goal is to do the least work possible to get the grade, they aren't going to earn an A in the course. (I found a great quote from Liz Lawley of several years back that basically explains why A is not a grade given for just meeting the requirements.)

And, to be honest, is not entirely their fault. I know my colleagues' strengths and weaknesses and they know mine. Our human nature wants us to give students the benefit of the doubt of their potential even when they aren't performing right now.

However, as one of the last gatekeepers before they enter the world on the other side of the desk, it is my responsibility not to impose those who aren't capable on the students in my community who realistically will also one day be my students. Obviously, the final gatekeepers are the principals and superintendents that choose to hire our graduates or not to hire them.

So, if you take a minute to read the Chronicle story, you'll see that we're not talking about rewarding the student who just flatters the teacher but instead the one who shows the most potential in the classroom but, most importantly as the author points out, the willingness to work hard to do what it takes to be a teacher - something I consider a calling and not just a job where you may be done with your official day by 5pm.

On the other hand, the point where I have to differ with the essay author is regarding the somewhat quiet student in the back. The student that is not comfortable speaking in front of his peers will most likely not be willing to speak, let alone speak authoritatively enough to maintain classroom discipline, to a room full of 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds, some of whom are more often than not rolling their eyes at what is being taught. It takes a special person to be a teacher.

Furthermore, I'm in a field - history and social studies - in which there is a glut of teachers. We are certainly not part of the "increasing demand for teachers." And I would rather know that the students who go out with As in our final "assessment course," are among the best out there and that principals and superintendents at least believe they can place some weight on our evaluations from the ivory tower as they judge our students' potentials for success in the real world.

Any supporting or opposing thoughts are welcome!

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