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Teachers Are Not Miracle Workers

In the debate over recruiting and retaining the best college graduates, the claim is often made that they are indispensable because they can overcome all obstacles ("Searching for Star Teachers," educationviews.org, Jun. 30). This view rejects out of hand the argument about the responsibility of students in learning. Only in the U.S. is the burden for learning placed solely on the shoulders of teachers.  I think this policy is totally unrealistic and extremely harmful.

Movies like to portray teachers as magicians with the ability to take a classroom of recalcitrant students and turn them into near scholars (e.g. "Stand and Deliver"). Perhaps there are a few teachers who have managed to achieve the seeming impossible.  But they are outliers. The truth is that learning is a partnership between teachers and students.  If students do not want to learn for whatever reason, teachers cannot do their job. The reported 7,000 students who drop out of schools every day are a tragedy. But to conclude that they would not have done so if their teachers had cared if they remained in school is a gross oversimplification.

Students drop out of school for many reasons other than the indifference of teachers.  Some students come from chaotic backgrounds that make it almost impossible for them to concentrate. Others leave to earn money to support their siblings.  Still others have no interest in the material being taught by even the most caring and charismatic teachers.

Irving Howe in World Of Our Fathers (Simon & Schuster, 1976) wrote that this was nothing new.  In 1905 when public schools in New York City were confronted with an overwhelming number of immigrants, he summed up the situation as follows: "... the New York school system did rather well in helping immigrant children who wanted help, fairly well in helping those who needed help, and quite badly in helping those who resisted help." Notice that he did not make excuses for the latter group. He merely described reality.

During the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I tried my best to reach all my students.  But I was not successful because over time too many of them viewed school primarily as a venue for socializing. Accompanying this change was their sense of entitlement.  School was supposed to be fun.  But not all learning can be made that way.  There is a certain amount of discipline necessary for real learning.  Unless students are willing to do their part, teachers will eventually burn out.  There is already evidence of this as a result of the series of new expectations.

Exchange teachers from Asia always are astounded by the difference in attitudes between students here and those from their own country.  Hard work and sacrifice are accepted as indispensable to learning in their native countries. It's more than mere coincidence that Asian students, even if they are born here, consistently are the best students. They have been brought up in homes where all teachers are respected and learning is valued for its own sake.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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