I got a fair amount of response in my email box regarding the IT JUST DOESN'T MATTER article; mostly from friends concerned that I was getting burnt out in teaching. No worries. I love the kids, teaching, and school environment. My frustration stems from what I often hear being communicated from districts, politicians, and the public regarding a teacher's role in a student's outcome. So I thought I would try to elaborate on my view.
In the example I gave of Bill Murray trying to encourage his camp teams, he tried to jokingly point out to them that they were really only there to meet girls. Since the only way to get girls attention was to have money, how they played in the camp Olympics had no bearing on the desired outcome.
Schools spend an inordinate amount of time and money on things that only fractionally impact a student's academic outcome. In the meantime, one of the largest indicators of student success or failure is sidelined into obscurity.
Before I go on with my argument, let me state that I am aware that there are statistical outliers. There are students who work hard and yet never seem to pass anything, and there are students who put in little effort and coast easily through everything. I am not talking about them. I am referring to the statistical majority.
Imagine two students of equal aptitude begin violin lessons at the same time. One practices nightly and works with her teacher to improve. The other never practices outside of class and puts in minimal effort with the teacher. At the end of the year, the skill level of the first is almost triple that of the second. Now take that out over 6 years. By that time, though they are the same age, they are no longer peers in the playing of violin.
Ask anyone on the street what the major reason for the disparity is, and not a soul would state that it was the curriculum used, or the pacing, or the delivery style of the teacher. The clear difference is that one student worked hard... and the other did not. This is not judgment, it is observation.
If a child has spent many years putting in a fraction of the effort of his or her peers, that child WILL be markedly behind. Again, this is observation not judgment. If a student is determined to proceed on a minimalist path, it matters little whether my approach is direct or investigative, small or large group, many hours or few, theatrical or drab. For the majority of students, they get out of school what they and their parents put into it. No more no less.
However, in much school policy, in the rhetoric of many politicians, and in the view of much of the public; that reality has no bearing and is completely ignored. That which I believe to be the prime mover is not addressed. Parents and children are not hearing the message that their future is in their hands. In only one political speech this season have I heard a candidate challenge parents to be parents and read to their young children - a small candle amidst the torrent of blame assigned to teachers and schools whose hands and tongues are tied.
A student entering the sixth grade who, because of years of neglect, operates at a third grade level has only one option - work their ASS off. There is no substitution. Nothing but a COMMITMENT to catch up is going to change anything.
I heard a fellow teacher say this week "If a child doesn't know, they haven't been taught." Nonsense! Notice that the first assumption is that the child is a complete victim of fate, that the child (and the parents) had NOTHING to do with it. I was one of those students! I was taught! I just wasn't paying attention! I had many, many teachers who I now know were doing a fine job. The problem was ME. When ME got his act together and made the decision to do well, ME did just fine!
I see a handful of students turn the corner each year. The light goes on and they start paying the price. It is hard and seemingly slow work, but progress is made. It will take them a few years to catch up, but if they keep it up they will make it! The question is: How do we move them all to that place? We will never figure it out if we keep chasing red herrings!
I think the solution is to look honestly at this situation. What is going on sociologically, physiologically, and psychologically in our society compared with other nations who, at least on the surface, do not seem to have these issues? All of our public, state, and national rhetoric is focused on what the schools are doing, while little is mentioned about what families and students need to do. We ignore that primary variable at our peril.