Positively Encouraging: Teachers Doing No Harm

In another confluence of events I’m reflecting on just how much of an effect teachers have on a student’s trajectory.  A misread tweet on how damaging assessment can be was followed by a post on Google+ and punctuated by a graduated student showing up unexpectedly this week.  It all got me thinking about how damaging to students teachers can be.


I got into computers when I was ten years old.  By the time I was twelve I’d published code and was writing my own programs.  It took a single dismissive remark by my computer science teacher to knock me off that trajectory for years.


I did grade ten computer science on a freaking computer punch card reader and did well.  I’m not a mathlete and struggled with the theory, but as a hands on coder I’m more than capable – I sympathize with the machine and understand what it needs.  In grade eleven we finally got to move to 286×86 IBM PCs and I was very excited.  I’d signed up for grades eleven and twelve in consecutive semesters, but after the math teacher running the program basically turned it into a math course, I didn’t do very well.  When I walked into the grade twelve class in semester two he looked down his nose at me and said, “Tim?  Really?”  I dropped the class shortly thereafter.  If you asked him now he’d probably say he was doing me a favour.  He did me no favours.


Last week I had a young man drop by who graduated a couple of years ago.  He asked me if I remembered what our computer science teacher at the time had said to him in grade eleven.  He’d basically done to this kid what my computer science teacher did to me.  Jake said he bounced back because I essentially designed our new software engineering course around his suggestions, which encouraged him not to give up on his love of coding; he’s about to finish the programming course at Conestoga and he’s debt free because his game studio is making him enough money to pay for his college.  Teachers who have never published anything telling people what they can and cannot do really get on my nerves.

This student and I both tend toward a right-brained approach to things, thinking laterally and often intuitively about problem solving.  We’re foreign beasts to predominantly left brained math and science types.  That linear, concrete thinking allows left brained teachers to place a lot of faith in grades – they believe that they are something more than a vague, abstraction of a student’s abilities.  When these mathlete computer science types look down their nose at you in condescension, they believe that the D they gave you means something.  I would posit that their certainty makes them a liability in any classroom.


Becoming a high school teacher was never a goal of mine.  With a few exceptions I didn’t enjoy school when I was in it and I certainly wasn’t aiming to make a career of it.  Now that I find myself teaching I’m constantly aware of just how damaging those gatekeepers in my own background were.  


In grade ten I wanted to be an astronomer more than anything else, but a series of science teachers made a point of crushing that dream.  I’m hardly stupid, and I was willing, but it was their way or the highway and I don’t bow to authoritarianism very well, especially when my scrappy, experimental approach to problem solving bares fruit.  They didn’t like that I struggled to a solution myself rather than following the well trodden path of ‘the right answer’.  In retrospect, and with some pedagogy to back me up now, I’d wager that my hard won answer is still with me today while the A+ students who memorized the process have long since forgotten it.  Learning is supposed to be messy.

When you think in absolutes you have the potential to do some real harm to children.  Every day I make a conscious effort to consider how what I’m saying will encourage genuine learning in my students.  I’m not an easy teacher, and often have the biggest friction with the A+ crowd who just want to know what to write so they can do what they’re told and get that A plus they’ve become accustomed to.  In those cases I celebrate their efficiency while expanding their resiliency.  You don’t need to belittle someone because they do things differently to you.


As teachers we could do a lot worse than following the Hippocratic oath doctors use.  If at any point you think you’re helping a student by disciplining them with assessment, you’re not – that was the subtext of my tweet to the Ministry.  


If at any point you dismiss a student’s approach to a subject because it’s not the same as yours, you’re helping yourself more than you are your student.


Try and be what you’re supposed to be: the adult in that student’s life who can dispassionately see their potential and then do everything possible to realize it.  This can be much harder work than simply attacking kids with numbers because they don’t conform to your process, but it’s much more rewarding.


So many secondary teachers fall into a comfort zone around their familiarity with their subject and are unwilling to see any other way to do it.  It might take a bit of lateral thinking, but seeing the value in how a student approaches a subject instead of assessing them based on how closely they follow your methods would be a significant pedagogical step forward.  We’d suddenly be assessing how they are grappling with their learning rather than forcing our methodology on them, and that would mean far fewer teachers slamming the door in student’s faces with or without realizing it.

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