Debate Magazine

Why Most Conversations About Education Start with the Wrong Premise (Part 2)

By Stevemiranda

There are three kinds of high school teachers:

  • “Teachers” merely show up and deliver academic content to students.
  • “Good teachers” show up, take their jobs seriously, and do one of two things: either they’re very good at identifying material that students are interested in or they deliver somewhat boring material with charisma and authority.
  • “Great teachers” do all of the above.

I’m defining these terms based on conversations I’ve had with countless teenagers in the past 10 years. I haven’t specifically tested this language but if you ask any high school kid if this is accurate, he or she will probably shrug and, for the most part, agree. (Actually, now I’m interested. If you are a high school student, please visit the Facebook page and let me know if these definitions work for you.)

The problem is that these definitions are all about what the teacher is doing, and have nothing to do with what’s happening for students. This is the problem with having schools in which the primary focus is on academic content delivery. The big questions end up being things like, “Should I make sure to get through all the material by the end of the year, or go in depth with some of the more important things?” Or, “Do you have any interesting activities to do with kids when reading To Kill a Mockingbird”?

I vividly remember an after-school meeting with a student and her parent, who was outraged that her child was getting a “D” in my class. I was choosing academic content that I thought would interest students, and was delivering it with charisma and authority as best I could; I was doing my job. The problem, however, was that the student—who was smart, funny, engaging, vibrant, and very likable—just wasn’t all that interested in the class and was choosing to prioritize other activities over the homework I was assigning. It was an excruciatingly painful meeting. Mom wanted to focus on all the things her daughter wasn’t doing, and I felt helpless in pointing out that there was nothing wrong with her daughter. She was simply caught in a trap.

I witnessed this same scenario play out year after year. Most of the time it didn’t end up in a parent meeting; most kids either got D’s and F’s without a fuss or they’d learned to subjugate their own interests and do the homework because that’s what keeps adults off their backs.

This is what we get from a view of education that’s centered on academic content delivery, not on helping students grow into thoughtful, mature adults.

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