Education Opinion

The Toughest Exam Question

By Susan Graham — February 02, 2011 4 min read
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“Please be sure to respond to the last three questions on your exam in complete sentences. There are no wrong answers.”

But there were some wrong answers--because one of the questions was, “If you were me and teaching this class, what would you have done differently?” My students weren’t wrong. I was. I failed my own exam.

I expected answers about having more food labs, fewer written assignments, and no tests; but I knew I had not been a highly effective teacher when in class of eighteen, six students responded that, if they were the teacher, they would have spent less time on the disruptive students. They thought I should have kicked them out of class.

I tried so hard with these eighth graders. Some of my colleagues maintain that teaching an elective is easier because the kids “choose to be in your class.” But the reality is some of my students don’t choose to take my course. I am the least of the possible evils, but given a real choice they would choose “none of the above.” Add to that, in a grades-are-all-that-matter culture, elective teachers get a lot of “I don’t have to pass this class because even if I fail, I still go on to high school next year.”

Some of these choice by default students don’t exactly hate my class, and they don’t dislike me, they just aren’t any more interested in what I’m offering than they are in polynomials or the Periodic Tables. They are not bad kids, but unless I really stay on top of them, they slack. They’ll doodle when they are supposed to be writing, they’ll have to be pushed hard to respond to questioning, they’ll stare out the window during a demonstration. Even in a food lab, they’ll lean up against the counter and let their teammates do the work--showing interest only when it’s time to eat. I work hard at bringing these kids in from the edge to the center of learning. And while I concede that I may not be able to succeed with every one of them every day, I can usually find a button to push that engages even the passive student part of the time.

But this semester I failed. I had the usual two or three passive resistors, but Duane, was an active resistor, and there was only one thing he wanted---control of my classroom. He reasonably intelligent, nice looking, a good athlete, and moved in the"cool” crowd of middle school social strata and had concerned and involved parents who saw to it he got all the chances that go with a comfortable suburban lifestyle; but that wasn’t enough. I recognized and understood the underlying lack of self esteem and insecurity behind his behaviors, but I could not give him want he wanted--to be the center of attention for the whole class period every day.

I used every tool I knew to reward positive behavior and ignore negative behavior. I was proactive, establishing discipline plan in writing with a clear chain of consequences. I reassigned seating. I avoided confrontation by counseling with him in the hall. I altered lesson plans to create more small group assignments where he might redirect his need to lead; he consistently led his group astray. I tried holding class meetings with the class; he tried inciting mass resistance among his classmates. I established contact with parents and called and emailed parents, he played the parents off each other. I conferenced with the counselor and the parents and his other teachers. I kept him for lunch detention, but spent the time trying to establish relationship. I talked to his coach. I tried rewards. I tried punishment. I kept trying all semester, right down to the last day, but I failed. No matter what I could not find a lever to engage this student ....

I refused to give him what he wanted--52 minutes a day in the spotlight and never mind the rest of the class. But you know what? He won. Because he got what he wanted. Day after day he managed to commandeer a disproportionate amount of the class’s time, energy, and attention. And he did manage to recruit two or three followers and half a dozen gawkers who didn’t participate but couldn’t resist watching the show. In the process, he hijacked big chunks of the positive learning environment and cohesive instruction that the rest of the class students had a right to. So, while he might not have won, neither did I because he didn’t learn much and I didn’t do my best teaching.

I let a fourteen year old play me, but most of the blame is mine. I got my priorities wrong. Winning over Duane distracted me from meeting the needs of the others. An unbalanced distribution of time and attention is inappropriate whether the student on the receiving end is the Teacher’s Pet or the Teacher’s Project.

I believe that all children can learn. But I also believe that. while children may be compelled to attend school, all children have free will and they can and will choose whether or not to invest their energy in learning what I am teaching. I didn’t give up on Duane, and I didn’t leave him behind, but he was determined that he was going not going to led. In the process, I asked seventeen to mark time while I tried to keep one on track.

Why did I invest so much in Duane? Was it because I am so compassionate and professional? Is that why I kept engaging and didn’t just say “Leave.” Or was it because I’m too egotistical to acknowledge that every now and then a student will assert his right to say “I don’t want the knowledge you are offering, I want your power to control this room instead.”

I keep trying to figure out the answer and it keeps me awake at night.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.