Teacher: What I can’t do for students

(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)
(By Charles Rex Arbogast/ AP)

We hear a lot about the responsibility of teachers in the effort to help students achieve, but what about students themselves? In this post, a public school teacher (who asked not to be identified because she fears she could be targeted by her bosses), writes about the complexities of her job and what frustrates her — about students. This teacher blogs under the name Shakespeare’s Sister at Daily Kos, where a version of this appeared.

This year she started teaching at a new school in a different district, and is working  again with one of her best friends, who teaches 12th grade AP Literature and Composition. She is teaching 11th grade AP Language and Composition and one section of World Literature.

 

By Shakespeare’s Sister

When I started at my new school, my friend warned me that the students  lacked skills than the struggling students in my previous school. I didn’t believe her. The school I came from ranked near the bottom of all the schools in the state; how could any students be lower?

Then I started teaching here. I know all students in poverty have a range of deficits in learning, especially when it comes to language arts  – fluency in reading and/or writing, comprehension vocabulary, critical thinking, etc. I know many students in poverty struggle with motivation, most often because they already feel defeated and have experienced the cycle of poverty their whole lives. What I struggle with understanding, though, is where they develop the condition known as “learned helplessness,” and how I can help them break that cycle.

Learned helplessness is pretty simple to define, and is in fact defined everywhere: over time, a human — or even an animal — learns to act completely helpless, even if there is a chance for success or rewards. Usually the condition occurs when someone feels like they have no control over a situation.

Enter my students. Part of their learned helplessness comes, of course, from growing up and living in poverty. However, I believe the majority of it comes from a new trend in education, which boils down to the sequence of  “I do, We do, You do.” In essence, the “instructional method” is a version of “gradual release of responsibility” that is a “tried and true” teaching method. Here’s how it’s supposed to work: the teacher gives examples (or models how to do something); students practice it together; then, after a check-in to make sure everyone understands, the students move on to independent practice. Done (with, of course, some opportunities for re-teaching). Does this model work for every teaching situation? No, not really. However, is it generally successful in education? For the most part.

So what’s the problem? Because the method has been used so often for students in poverty, they’ve come to rely so heavily on the sequence that when a teacher (like myself) reaches the “I do” portion of the lesson, the students exhibit learned helplessness.

The first time this happened in this new school, I thought, “What did I do wrong?!” and proceeded to re-teach the concept in question to ensure my students had grasped it. During the “I do” portion, as I modeled thinking about a poem (“Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou and “Digging” by Seamus Heaney are some recent examples of modeled texts), I involved the students, and they gave me all of the “right” answers (it is literature after all) regarding inferences, literary terms, comprehension, etc. Great! They get it! Moving on!

But then we moved on to the “We do,” when students would practice with another poem in their groups (I should clarify that this method relies heavily on group work so that students with language deficiencies have the opportunity to learn language proficiency from each other as they gain access to and also learn the curriculum). And … they fell apart. Though they had demonstrated during modeling, when I “thought aloud” and asked myself questions about the text, that they could in fact respond to my questions about the text, once I was no longer leading the group, they could not effectively answer questions.

And so…there I was again, asking myself “WHAT did I do wrong?!”   I asked my friend and co-worker for advice and guidance.

Her response? That’s what they’ve been taught to do. Over the years in this school, they have learned that if they do that, teachers will give them more time, and more help, and more time, and more help — to the point where, if they wait out the teacher for long enough, they will help them through every step of completing something.

Great, so it’s not me. But here is the problem: I am responsible for the growth of these students. I have to make sure they achieve certain objectives throughout the year, including achieving proficiency on the ACT. Also, I have to (attempt to) transition them to the Common Core State Standards which, despite the fact that they are so nebulous and inherently flawed, include assessments which are so far above these students’ level of competency it’s frightening.

So. Whose fault is it? Is it the fault of the instructional method? Is it the fault of poverty? Is it the fault of the teacher for not holding the students to higher standards?

No matter whose fault it is, the problem is real and needs to be solved.  I will of course do my part to help my students achieve proficiency, no matter how many times I have to remind them, as I did yesterday:

Learning doesn’t happen easily. It happens when you struggle. I cannot help you every step of the way, because then I’m just actually doing you a disservice. You need to know that it’s okay not to know everything, but it’s not okay not to try. I am here to support you, and to help you, and to lead you to knowledge and the ability to understand things. You, though, have to be the ones to reach for that knowledge and take it. I can’t do that for you.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · November 7, 2013