Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Blame Game

More than half of my 65 Geometry students are failing. The obvious conclusion is that I'm doing something horribly wrong is it not? But I've been teaching for 6 years and I've never had a failure rate this high. What's more, the other 5 Geometry teachers in my building have failure rates on par with mine. So is the conclusion then that there is something wrong with the students?

I hate this game. I pride myself on not being "that guy" who simply blames the students and goes about his business. I've reinvented my teaching almost every year in an effort to improve and adapt with the needs of my students. I've even changed practices mid-year as I evaluate the effectiveness of what I'm doing. Recently, I got to thinking about why I hate the thought of being "that guy" so much. I think it goes deeper than simply wanting to be seen as a dedicated and hard working educator.

Here's the thing: if my students' successes & failures are my fault, then I can claim the credit if I'm also willing to accept the blame. Moreover, by accepting the blame, I can use that feedback to change and be a better teacher for the next crop of students. Simply put, if *I* am the #1 most important factor, then I have control. 

If the evidence suggests that I do not have control, that this crop of students is lacking in basic number sense, that their study habits are abysmal, that attendance and behavior statistics all point to a group of students seemingly doomed to fail, then I've lost my control. For better or worse, if the students (and their families) are to blame, then there is nothing I can do about it. Some might look at that and think that it's a freeing conclusion - why worry about something you can't control? For myself, and I'm guessing for any teacher who enjoys teaching, this is a terrifying realization.

If I can't control the outcome, then why am I wasting my time? Why did I stay up last night writing out this problem set if no one is going to complete it? Why did I come in early this morning to fine tune this quiz if most of the kids are simply going to leave it blank? Why should I bother creating an assessment designed to effectively gauge student understanding if there's no understanding to gauge? These thoughts are why some teachers burn out. Once that happens, they either leave the profession, or they settle in, unable to accept the pay cut that comes with starting over, and simply come in every day and go through the motions.

To quote Yoda: "Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering." I'm afraid that I don't have control over whether my students pass or fail. That fear makes me angry that I am powerless to control my own destiny. That anger leads me to hate (some of my) students. That hate leads to suffering for all parties involved. 

I honestly have no idea what a solution to this problem would even look like. It'd be a nice first step if the involved stakeholders (parents, school administrators, legislators, etc) simply acknowledged the problem so that we could all begin working toward a solution. Note: I'm NOT asking for everyone to just agree that I'm awesome and the students suck  - that's exactly the mindset that leads to frustration. What I want is for those in power to acknowledge that I've tried everything that could be expected of me and I'm still not able to provide evidence of my effectiveness. That must mean that the root of the problem lies elsewhere - let's find it, and then work toward a solution. 

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