How much should teachers do?

A recent post by Lisa got me thinking: how much should a teacher do? Lisa mentions that during an observation some of her students were not very engaged and that was reflected in the observation feedback.  A number of comments responding to her post outline different strategies that other teachers use to maintain student engagement.  However, it seems to me that this is not a one-way street: student engagement depends on the students as well as on the instructor.

Last week, I gave my Algebra I students an exam on systems of equations. I noticed that one girl, who has not paid attention all year and who is currently getting 5 F’s and 1 D in her courses was now, for a change, paying attention and taking notes. When I scored the exams I was blown away by the fact that she got a perfect score – actually she was the only student in three sections of Algebra I that did so. After I handed back the tests, I pulled this girl out in the hallway and, after congratulating her, I asked what changed. She said “I studied”. I asked her “Why now? Why did you waste a full year?” Well, it turns out she is in the judicial system – she was caught stealing and part of her probation is to get/maintain good grades.

I submit that some students (unfortunately too many in my classes) will not respond to teachers trying to engage them, especially in math. I submit that, while none of us wants to be a boring teacher, there is a large degree of responsibility on the students have to be engaged in class. I submit that we should stop beating ourselves up if some of our students are not engaged. If the horse does not want to drink, it will not drink no matter what song and dance we do.

As the case mentioned above illustrates, sometimes extrinsic motivation can be very powerful. I submit that our educational system does not provide sufficient such extrinsic motivation. If you fail a course, you can always take it in the summer – where teachers are many times easier. If you don’t get a good GPA, you can still go to college (albeit a junior one).  If you don’t score high enough on the placement exam, you can still take basically your high school courses over again.

The mantra in education seems to be that all our students will be successful and we will ask the teachers to explain, engage and entertain so no one falls behind. But, by trying to be inclusive we are too loose and too many of our “successful” students do not measure up to college or job demands. We are asked to engage the students, but there is no rubric on the observations forms for “teaches students to accept responsibility”.

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