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Published in Print: November 8, 2000, as You Have Your Teacher's Permission To Be Ignorant

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You Have Your Teacher's Permission To Be Ignorant

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Real success is based on what the student knows, not on what a teacher ordains.

I once read a cheery story about a caring teacher who helped her failing students by shortening their assignments. "Don't worry," the teacher assured a crying child as she handed him a shortened list of spelling words, "I will give you an assignment at which you can succeed." The implication was that the teacher, by crossing some words off of a list, "gave" the student success.We teachers are familiar with this line of thought. It is almost a rite of passage for first-year teachers to be called into their principals' offices to be chastised after releasing their first round of grades. "If you want to fail these children," the principal begins, as if the teacher is issuing failing grades for her own pleasure. "We want these children to succeed," the teacher is told. "We don't want them to experience failure."

We teachers remember with pain, laughter, or both, the in-service sessions in which we learned to empathize with our students, to feel their pain. At one such session, a presenter gave several commands in rapid succession. "Fold your paper in nine equal parts," he commanded, and rapidly added: "Draw a tetrahedron in the upper left corner. Write the name of the capital of Outer Mongolia in the square directly above the lower left-hand corner. Write the square root of 386 rounded to the nearest whole number in the square closest to the center. Put down your pencils! Why aren't you finished?" he shouted in feigned anger.

At another workshop, participants were asked to write while viewing their hands and writing in a mirror. At another, participants were asked to assemble jigsaw puzzles which, in reality, contained mismatched pieces. The moral of these sessions was always that it hurts to fail; therefore, give the kids tasks that they can perform with relative ease. Success is good and failure is bad, so let us give our students the former.

It is truly absurd to suggest that teachers are so powerful that we can somehow grant and withhold success with mere strokes of our pens. Sixty-nine percent represents failure, 70 percent represents success, and 90 percent represents honor. So, according to this way of thinking, a teacher can bring students success or honor by simply simplifying the assignments or by devising an excuse to tack on a few extra points.

It is a linguistic fluke that the word "fail" means both to lack success and to score below a set standard. Real success is based on what the student knows, not on what a teacher ordains. If a 1st grade student learns to read, he has succeeded. A classmate who did not learn to read has failed, even if the teacher declares him a success by giving him a passing grade. A well-read, knowledgeable recent high school graduate has the tools for success. In fact, so does a well-read, knowledgeable dropout. A barely literate graduate armed only with an undeserved diploma and a transcript filled with inflated grades is, however, going to have problems. Only knowledge is power.

A barely literate graduate armed only with an undeserved diploma and a transcript filled with inflated grades is going to have problems.

Some of the greatest frustrations that we teachers feel result from conflicting expectations placed on us. On the one hand, we are expected to honestly evaluate our students' knowledge, skills, and progress. On the other, we are expected to assure that all, or at least most, "succeed," even if we have to fabricate that success by watering down the material or inflating the grades. Teachers are expected to both follow a curriculum and to manipulate that curriculum so that all students at least enjoy the illusion of success.

Low standards, particularly for students who have known little else, can actually make a teacher look good. Feel-good activities and mind-numbing busywork can be very effective classroom-management techniques. While challenging assignments may motivate students who have come to expect them, students who have never been pushed are likely to react to such assignments by misbehaving. Veteran teachers will tell you that some of their best teaching may have appeared to be their worst. The student who refuses to open his literature textbook in August, yet somehow develops a love for reading by the following May, or one who quivers with anger or frustration while attempting new algorithms, yet becomes enthusiastic about math after mastering them, should warm our hearts.

Many competent readers had to be dragged, screaming and kicking, through their first novels, and many top math students once had to have the multiplication tables drilled into them. Helen Keller first reacted to Anne Sullivan's finger-spelling lessons by screaming, kicking, and biting. Unpleasant confrontations, however, may result in poor evaluations from administrators or complaints from parents. Smiling faces and busy fingers make for the best public relations.


Last year a journalist for a Houston newspaper visited an inner-city high school and observed some classes. He wrote disparagingly of an English teacher whose 11th grade students were performing dismally on a test covering a Shakespeare play, but praised an algebra teacher who captured his students' attention by using games of chance to teach them about probability. What's wrong with this picture? Probability is not a part of algebra. While I do not know the teachers in question and therefore cannot judge their abilities, it is clear that the English teacher was, however unsuccessfully, covering high-school-level literature, while the algebra teacher had abandoned his assigned subject and replaced it with basic math.

One teacher refused to give her students permission to be ignorant and paid the price.

I recently had a conversation with a probationary teacher who had just been told that her contract would not be renewed. I was quite impressed by both her general knowledge and her knowledge of the subject she taught. She explained to me that, despite the fact that most of her 11th graders came to her reading at only a 4th or 5th grade level, she had managed to lead them through Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me Ultima, a novel appropriate for students who can at least read at a high school level. She had also managed to coax research papers from most of them. Earlier this year, she had been called into her principal's office and asked to "adjust" some of her student's grades. She was also asked to apologize to the parents of some discontented students. She refused to do either, and she is now looking for another job. She refused to give her students permission to be ignorant, so now she will pay the price.

While most teachers who give their students permission to know less than their peers do so by turning a blind eye to their failures, we special education teachers put that permission in writing. Each year, we meet with an administrator, a student's parents, and others responsible for the student's education to discuss his or her individual educational program, or IEP. At these meetings, we set the student's educational goals for the year.

I never cease to be awed by this responsibility. It is not that it is wrong to hold those of lesser skills and abilities to a lower standard. We certainly should not, for example, demand that Down's syndrome children perform differential calculus. Nor should we require illiterate children to analyze great works of literature. Still, the responsibility of determining the standard to which a child should be held is an awesome one.


It is easy to succumb to the temptation to teach special-needs children at their comfort levels. The system allows and often encourages us to do so. This, however, is rarely in the child's best interest.

My school once had a 4th grade child come from a neighboring district unable to subtract or to write in cursive handwriting. Although her IEP included only the most rudimentary literacy and math skills, the girl seemed to be fairly bright, so we wrote her new IEP near her grade level. After some pushing and prodding, she mastered her basics and is now comfortably working with regular 4th grade material. Another 4th grader was reduced to tears several times in the process of learning long division, a procedure he eventually mastered. It is fortunate that I was not observed during some of those students' more difficult moments in my class.

There is nothing more heart-wrenching than a special-needs child in tears, but there is nothing more heartwarming than the smile of a child for whom schoolwork has ceased to be a mystery.

There is nothing more heart-wrenching than a special-needs child in tears, but there is nothing more heartwarming than the smile of a child for whom schoolwork has ceased to be a mystery.

We teachers should imagine ourselves as swimming instructors whose charges will someday be thrown out of a boat half a mile from shore. If we certify that a nonswimming student is a competent swimmer, he will still sink like a stone when thrown from the boat.

In like manner, a graduate who lacks real academic skills, who has only the trappings of scholarly success, will have a difficult time swimming in the real world. Failure is failure, with or without our permission.


Jerry Jesness is a special education teacher working with bilingual students in Los Fresnos, Texas.

Vol. 20, Issue 10, Pages 49,52

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