I’m wanting to explore teacher responses to students who, for many reasons, may be slow to learn what we teach and those who, for other reasons, resist our teaching efforts. I am interested in those students and their responses, but for the moment I’d like to focus on how we respond when teaching fails.
Even though I’m no longer teaching, vivid memories of students who didn’t learn have stayed with me. I think of them often as I struggle to teach two learners who are currently a central part of my life. There’s my brother, Chas., who’s mentally compromised and finds most things difficult to learn, and my two-year-old beagle, Maple, who could care less about learning anything I consider important. Like many of my former students, Chas. and Maple challenge my teaching in very different ways, even though my response to failed teaching efforts is pretty uniform.
Chas. learns best when the explanations are simple, straightforward, and repeated. I practice before offering them to him. Regularly, he gives up anyway—scrunches his face, drops his shoulders, sighs, and announces he doesn’t understand or can’t do it. Many of our students struggle with this same absence of confidence, which grows out of continued unwillingness to give themselves credit for the many things they have learned. As a teacher, I knew my students could do it, and so can Chas. But I respond with anger. He needs try harder, and when he doesn’t, then we both get upset. I can’t believe that my carefully conceived explanations didn’t work. It’s disappointing, frustrating, and leads me to same conclusion: I can’t teach him.
Unlike Chas., Maple resists learning for reasons that have nothing to do with confidence. She’s a dog; he’s a person. She never will understand why any number of her favorite behaviors have life-threatening potential. She loves to chew—socks, blankets, pillows, towels. Last year she consumed a dish towel that had to be surgically removed. I’m reminded of students who without knowledge blithely make assumptions; the digital age relieves them of all grammar and spelling responsibilities. Their new language would shortly be the way everyone communicated. And most assuredly they can use their phones while driving, studying, or taking notes. One told me he had a brain “wired” to multitask.
Maple doesn’t need to understand the problem with her chewing behavior. But she does need to learn to grab one of her many dog bones when she wants to chew and every so often looks like that’s what she’s learned. She does pretty well for a couple of months, but then the learning fades and the bad behavior returns. Her regressions reminds me of students who’ve mastered a concept or develop a skill. They’ve got it; you’ve seen them do it. Then two weeks later, when asked to use what they learned, they’re confused, don’t remember, and express frustration. Why do teachers expect them to remember what was covered two weeks ago? And how do I respond to forgotten learning? Yes, with more anger. I don’t have time to teach this again. Students should remember what they’ve learned. How is it possible for them possible to miss the importance— indeed, the necessity—of what I was teaching?
Teaching requires such patience, both with our learners and with ourselves as we repeatedly fail in our attempts to teach. I’ve known for years that anger doesn’t usually help me teach better or motivate student efforts to learn more. Righteous indignation—anger for the right reasons—can be a force that motivates change in teachers and students, but there’s not much righteous about the emotional swirl that sweeps over me in the presence of failed teaching and no learning. I need to bypass the anger, move quickly around the frustration, arrive at the teaching strategies that didn’t work with an analysis of why, and move forward to creative thinking about what might work better.
I didn’t yell at students the way I yell at Maple, but too often I walked away, gave up, telling myself that learning was a student responsibility. It’s theirs to do or not to do. Right. But neither Chas. nor Maple are going to learn well or at all without me to teach them. Students have the right to walk away from learning, but I’m not sure that justifies a walk back from teaching. We’ve got too many students whose learning depends on patient, persevering teachers who push on even when learning breakthroughs are few and far between.