Budget & Finance Opinion

Bad Teaching Practice #1: “I am Only Going to Teach Those Who Are Ready To Learn”

By Anthony Cody — November 12, 2012 5 min read
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Have you ever heard this one? A number of times in my career, I heard teachers, usually new ones, it must be said, announce in frustration that they were sick and tired of dealing with the kids who were disrupting class, and that from that point forward, they were going to forget about the “ones who aren’t ready to learn,” and put their energy into those who are. I even had a teacher tell me she set up her seating chart and put the “bad” kids in the back. There are a number of reasons this is a bad practice.

In the first place, it will not work.
As soon as you attempt to ignore students who are misbehaving, they are likely to act out even more, so as to make themselves impossible to ignore. Often, their behavior is a cry for attention. Many children have learned that they are unlikely to get positive attention, especially in school, so they settle for negative attention - because it is better than being utterly ignored. Thus, your attempt to ignore them will backfire. If you seat them at the back, you will create a peanut gallery devoted to artfully disrupting your every attempt to teach.

If you communicate your classification decisions to your students, letting them KNOW whom you think is “good” and whom you think is a waste of space, they are very likely to live up to your expectations. For this reason, behavior contests between different periods are a very risky proposition. Once a class has gotten behind in the race to win your approval, it may be easier for them to decide they are never going to please you, so why bother?

Students are keenly sensitive to our expectations for them, academically and behaviorally. Those out there who emphasize expectations have got THAT right. If we tell a student, or worse yet, a group of students, that they are incompetent or untalented, they will often conform to that expectation. Standardized test data often has a similar effect, stigmatizing whole schools and convincing low-scoring students with precise (though faulty) data they will never amount to anything.

So it is our job to look for the signs of talent, the spark of interest that lights up a student’s eyes, and fan that into a flame. Every student has some special talents, and the challenge is to find ways to uncover and develop them. This is one reason I appreciate doing more complex projects, that have opportunities for students to create products that incorporate art, technology, creative writing, math and other skills. Many students come to us without a strong positive identity or awareness of their own talents, and part of our journey together is to uncover these, and help the students claim them as their own.

We need to build a sense of community within our classrooms. There are going to be some students more talented at some things than others, but everyone has gifts to offer, and we need to find ways to allow every student some recognition for theirs. Our students have a natural tendency to pick on one another at times as well. It might be tempting, if the students are going after the disruptive one in the class, to encourage this behavior. Teachers sometimes even catalyze this, by stigmatizing students who act out. As satisfying as it may be to have the class on our side, it is not the best approach, because it sets us up as enemies.

Students who disrupt class are harming their peers as well as themselves, even though that is not their goal. That makes these sorts of issues problems for the classroom community to solve. In my last few years in the classroom I experimented with classroom meetings. Students could put topics for discussion into a box, and once a week we would take fifteen minutes or so to discuss the problems. This way, disruptive behavior was not just my problem to solve as a teacher, but was a community concern to be addressed by everyone.

As teachers, we do our best to be there for all of our students, not just those who are functioning at the highest levels. Sometimes students may behave in ways that prevents the class from functioning, and that should be dealt with quickly and with administrative support so the class does not waste inordinate amounts of time. If possible, we should seek support for the student that addresses the issues that may be provoking him to misbehave. However, as my recent posts about the stresses of poverty indicate, we may never know what is happening in the lives of our students that is causing them to come to school unprepared, angry or hostile.

Our classrooms are microcosms of the communities we would wish for in our neighborhoods, and we are teaching our students not only how to divide fractions, but how to get along with people who are different, and even difficult. This is our compassion in action, and it is among the most precious things we can teach our students.

I cannot help but relate this to a similar phenomenon that is happening on a much bigger scale. One of the things that makes public schools such a valuable resource is that we accept all comers. Unless students set things on fire or bring weapons to school, they have that seat reserved for them. But our public schools are now facing intense competition from charter schools, some of which set up selective criteria. Some require parental involvement, or push students out with zero tolerance disciplinary codes. Some charter schools have been found to lose the lower performing students through attrition, and not replace them when they leave. Charter schools have been found to have lower numbers of special education students and English learners. These schools are, in a way, doing the same thing that novice teacher suggested as her strategy - focusing on the “students who are ready to learn.”

Carried to its logical conclusion, this leads to a situation where the regular public schools house the rejects, the special education students and English learners, and those most damaged by poverty, and the selective charter schools march proudly forward with those “who are ready to learn.” This creates a downward spiral for the public schools, as their resources become overwhelmed by the burden of educating the neediest students, and their declining reputation results in people with options moving their children out. We end up with, on a societal level, the kind of win-lose scenario we work so hard in our classroom to overcome. If we want our communities to function well, we cannot tolerate this. For this reason we must make sure our public schools thrive, and are not starved when forced to compete with schools that do not make room for all students.

What do you think? How can we make sure we are reaching all of our students and creating a good learning community?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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