#PassionDriven – The Brutal Truth About Teaching

I recently came across an article  titled “How I Became an Unfair Teacher”. It was written by a primary school teacher who was trying to understand the influence that a teacher has with their students. One particular section was telling:

Classroom lessons may slip quickly through students’ fingers, but the classroom experience lingers in memory. Each teacher offers students a different model of authority and justice. We set our own standards of fairness and sometimes fail to honor them. A teacher swings a heavy club, and we can leave big, purple bruises if we’re not careful.

Ideally, we’d consider every student’s perspective, every moment of the day. But that effort is difficult with the limits of our time, energy, and imagination. In practice, it helps to adopt rules of thumb, rehearsed habits of fairness that can spare students undue suffering—and keep us from living on as demons in their memories of school.

Even though I teach at the undergraduate level, I’ve noticed the same things in my work. You get so focussed on getting through the material that you forget that you are serving your students’ needs and you can’t do that until you pay attention.

It’s a very good article and I encourage everyone to go read it, but that’s not what inspired me to write this post.

That happened when I read the comments.

Specifically, one comment in particular:

And this is why we have raised a generation of emotional weaklings who give up after the first shock–not making first team on the varsity, not having the work ethic to pass an AP test, not having the intelligence to make it through the first quarter of community college.

Every year I see the kids in my high school leave and 90% of them claim to be going to this or that college. Within a year 70-80% of them have dropped out. Your teaching philosophy/worldview is a huge part of the reason why they drop out. They have no guts. No determination. Emotionally stunted, they can’t handle setbacks. With massive egos, the moment they encounter this indifferent thing (which far surpasses your own perceived indifference) called reality they throw their hands up and quit.

Surprise. You…and your students are specks of cosmic dust. You’re not important. So buck up and realize that in life you’re going to get your feelings hurt.

Or you could just keep setting your kids up to fail because there are way more emotionally difficult things waiting for them in this place where the training wheels come off called adulthood: stagnant wages, student loan debt, the destruction of a middle class life, breaking of unions, loss of health care benefits, the pension that vanishes the moment you go to collect it, skyrocketing inequality.

Working to reverse these trends will be even harder than keeping your eyes open in class because you had to work the night shift.

It took me a while to figure out why this comment bothered me. At first I thought that it was needlessly cruel. Then I realized that it was worse than that. It was lazy. True cruelty requires engagement and this commenter couldn’t even be bothered. They just wrote off everyone who wasn’t them. In other words, this person took 253 words to just say “Meh”.

When I was younger I might have speculated about a person with this sort of attitude – what’s their background, why do they think this, etc. Now I just call it as I see it.

You may think that you’re delivering ‘tough love’ to the kids to ‘scare them straight’ and ‘give them some backbone’ something something get off my lawn something FREEDOM! But you’re just a lazy, indifferent d-bag.

Whatever happened to making a better world for our kids? I realize it’s much easier instead to try and drag them down to our level but I don’t think that was always the case.

My mother was an environmental activist. She did this while taking care of her husband, five kids and living in a town where the primary employer was also the region’s largest polluter and hence a major target for her activism.

This had a cost. She got screamed at when she was buying groceries. The priest at our local church told her she was no longer welcome at Mass. My father, an independent businessman, lost customers. We kids were teased and bullied at school (by students and faculty) because of what our mom did.

But we supported her and her work, despite all that. When we asked her why she put up with all of this crap (in addition to the mind-numbing amount of work involved in serious activism), she would tell us that she wanted to make a better world for her children and for her children’s children.

That lesson stuck with me. While I can’t say that I have made as big a difference in the world as my mother, I put in what effort I can in as many ways as I can to make things better. For me this is the primary goal of teaching – to make a better world. It’s hard work and it doesn’t always pan out. But, like my mother, you keep going back and you keep trying.