One question that comes up a lot amongst educators concerns what we can do to most effectively help the students we see. The answer to this question varies greatly from teacher to teacher. While I believe that there is no one right answer to this question, I do think the answer is a reflection of that teacher's classroom approach and personality. Therefore, I've included some of the ideas that I try to follow to give a better picture of what to expect in my classroom.
1. The truth shall set you free.
I don't believe we have enough people talking to students as if they can handle the truth, creating a situation in which teenagers are talked down to quite a bit. The problem is, I believe they know the difference and are put off by anything disingenuous. Additionally, I think they need the truth. Therefore, I promised the students on the first day that I would tell them the truth at all times, especially regarding their performance. I want them to believe me when I tell them they've done a nice job, so I can't be fake about that. And I want them to trust me when I tell them they need to put more time and effort into something. A disturbing trend in education is that of passing kids on and praising them for self-esteem's sake, yet never really confronting their deficiencies. I want students to be very clear and confident about what their strengths are as well as where they are weak. If they are cloudy about either because it's more convenient for me to avoid the truth, I haven't done my job.
2. Provide challenging opportunities for success.
Ultimately, I believe it is my job to provide opportunities for success for students in my classroom and to make that success attractive. Anyone who's experienced success knows one thing to be true - success feels good. However, success only feels good if it requires a commitment or challenge of some level to the individual accomplishing it. I believe that risk equals reward - the amount of time and energy and emotion an individual risks in order to obtain success is directly related to the amount of emotional reward that individual experiences if they obtain that success. Therefore, I push and prod and raise the bar that I ask students to achieve with the hope that they will genuinely feel that they have accomplished something worthwhile and feel good about it. If my class is more demanding than others, it's because I want to maximize the joy of success and make it contagious in students' lives.
Having said that, I understand that some will choose not to put in the work to feel success. As one of my colleagues likes to say, "You can lead them to water, but you can't make them drink." I will show students the path to that water and and tell them how good it tastes, but I won't bang my head against a wall trying to force them to drink something they don't want. My primary job, as I see it, is to show them the way to success and make it as attractive as possible over and over and over again. It's each student's individual choice to go experience it.
3. Respect individual student decisions.
I am not so arrogant that I believe I know what's best for each kid. While I believe that every student in my class is capable of doing well, I respect their right to define what success is for themselves. I have had several students who simply needed to pass my class in order to graduate, and once they accomplished that by getting by with a D, they went on to successful careers. One I even hired to do construction work on my house. I'm as proud of these students as any others who earned A's. I will push every kid to reach the level of success they desire and help them in any way I can. I ascribe great value to each student. I won't, however, beg them and nag them to do things that they don't feel are necessary for their own success.
On a similar note, a current trend is pushing high schools to get every student ready to go to college. I am not someone who believes college is good for every kid. I have many former students who didn't go to college who are successful, and many who did who are struggling. I think college is great - for those whom it fits. However, going or not going does not define success for an individual. I am hoping for a great deal of success for each of my students and for each of them to reach their potential. I refuse, however, to decide for them what their priorities should be or define what success is for them.
1. Success. I want my students to understand what it takes to be successful and to know how rewarding finding success can be. I want them to understand that success is reached through simple daily dedication to one’s priorities. By the time they graduate, I hope that they know what is important to them and how satisfying focusing on those things can be. In my class we’ve called it a magnificent obsession. I see too many people who are satisfied living a comfortable life of mediocrity, when if they only committed to something that was important to them, they could have so much more. I want my students to strive for that “more.” They should passionately explore their magnificent obsession.
2. Reading, Writing, and Speaking. I believe in the importance of the material in my English classes because people are judged so quickly (whether fairly or not) on their ability to use these skills. The ability to read empowers students for future knowledge. The ability to speak and write empowers students to communicate in such a way that they convince others to listen to and respect their ideas. Fair or not, first (and lasting) impressions hinge on individual ability concerning these.
3. Facts. Some educational authorities are criticizing the teaching of facts as a low level form of learning, but I find them to be huge in creating potential learning in students. E.D. Hirsch, one of my favorite educational writers, calls it intellectual capital. Students must have what we call prior knowledge on which to build new knowledge, otherwise they struggle to understand new concepts. There is a body of information that educated people expect to be “common knowledge,” and without it, individuals can be left out of conversations. Several facts or pieces of information are essential from every subject matter taught in school, and I won’t allow my students to be uninformed about such things as the history of the English language, American literary figures, the influence of history on literature, and the arrangement of different genres of literature.