Teacher Factor, Student Factor

I once saw the following cartoon strip that speaks much about how attitudes and practices in education have changed over the years—

explain-these-bad-grades

Image from mrthomasteacher.blogspot.com

When a student gets a failing grade at a class, chances are the phrase “teacher factor” is bound to crop up somehow. Why did the student fail? What have you done, or not done, as a teacher that led to that outcome? Did you fail to tailor your teaching strategy to the learning style of the student? What could you have done—and yet did not do—that could have prevented the student from failing at your class?

I am a teacher. I teach psychology to college students. Although new to this profession, I have loved it since Day 1 of my immersion in it. I come to class prepared and eager to teach the lesson of the day. As a teacher, I am not perfect in every way, but I could honestly say I try to do my best teaching when I get up in front of a class. I start every class full of hope and expectation that my students will learn something that day, and that they will see value in what they are learning.

In a perfect world, that expectation would be fulfilled—all students in the classroom paying attention, listening, actively thinking and digesting the concepts, joining in the discussion, and engaging in class activities. But the scenario in the real world is far from perfect. In a typical class, there are a handful of the so-called “A-students” who typically sit at the very front row in rapt attention and ready to engage in the activities of the day. There is another group of moderately-receptive students who want to pass enough to pay lukewarm attention to some parts of the lesson. Still another group of students fall under the “physically present, mentally absent” category, with a sort of deadened look in their faces, an occasional dreary response when asked, and an obvious “I’m just waiting for the dismissal bell” aura. And then there is an entire other group of students not even in the classroom.

As a teacher who’s just starting out, I often felt responsible for those lapses in attention, insufficiencies in motivation, and deficits in performance. I thought I was doing my best teaching, but I also considered the thought that maybe I was not using the right teaching strategy for some of these kids, or maybe I was not making the lessons interesting enough, or maybe I was not sensitive enough to figure out how to best motivate the students who were clearly falling behind the pack. I would ask myself, “What am I not doing right?” It was hard not to entertain the thought that as a teacher, I was failing at something, because there were kids in my class that I could not get to perform up to standard.

Sophie (not her real name) was one of those students who caused me to question my effectiveness as a teacher. During the prelims, she would always sit at the very back of the class, looking disengaged and listless. Her vacant eyes were a dead giveaway that she couldn’t care less about whatever was happening in the classroom. Failing quizzes and the term exam, she received a failing grade for prelims in my subject.

Then midterm came and I saw a different Sophie walk in my classroom. Sitting at the very front row of the class, she would listen to lectures with sharp attention and participate in class activities and discussions with what seemed to me was a newfound sense of determination. Her eyes were no longer expressionless, but bright and telling of her resolve to do better. She started getting higher scores in quizzes, and became a regular top scorer in her class. After hearing a compliment from me for her dramatic improvement, she cheerfully explained that she was trying to make up for her poor performance in the prelims.

Sophie’s story is not entirely unique; I know of many other students who did not do so well at the start of the semester and yet determinedly picked up towards the end. But what fascinates me most about Sophie’s case is that for a moment there, I thought that she was just one of those students I had wanted to help but felt as if couldn’t. I had tried to motivate other students like her in the past, but to no avail. So at that time, I had started to become disheartened that there was ever anything I could say or do that would make students like her want to learn, and do the work it takes to learn. I thus simply plowed on with my classes, admittedly no longer expecting her to become engaged, much less excel, in class.

But she did. Even until now it makes me smile to think about the transformation I was lucky enough to witness in Sophie. At the encounter of the difficult, some students just whine and continue plodding along with not a bit of effort added and with a kind of resignation that says, “I’ll never be able to learn this even if I tried, so why should I even bother?” At the prospect of failure, these students simply give up altogether and hope to God they can scrape through anyway by pleading with the teacher and appealing to pity. But Sophie proved to me that there are students who, in the face of adversity and failure, have it in themselves to turn things around. Even without me handing her a crutch, she took it upon herself to do what needs to be done to get past a hurdle and recompense for past slip-ups. She showed me what “student factor” can do.

Nowadays, the trend in education calls for teachers to teach in a way that adapts to every student’s needs, quirks, and comfort zones. And indeed, such flexibility and sensitivity to student individuality are essential to optimize learning. However, the “teacher factor” is only half the equation. If we pile on the pressure only on teachers to make learning possible, and yet fail to recognize the “student factor” also essential to learning, we run the risk of raising a generation content with mediocrity and skilled only at negotiating their way through with pleads and favors rather than earning—and I mean, truly earning—their degree, their place in that company, that job.

In our desire and expectation to perfect “the teacher factor,” may we also not forget the other half of the deal—the “student factor.” We must take care that our emphasis on the “teacher factor” does not eat into the value and expectation we place on the “student factor.” Not all students have to be the so-called “A-students,” and for sure there is more to life than grades, other kinds of abilities other than academic ones. But in a significant way, it is in schools where our students get to mold the character strengths we currently need to see more of in our workforce, in our citizenry as a nation, and in humankind as a whole. We have witnessed the way teachers have set aside taking on the authoritarian role in the classroom, and instead moved towards flexibility and having the humility to meet students halfway as facilitators of learning. Now, may we not forget to value the same qualities in our students as well.

For when they go beyond the four walls of their alma maters, our students are bound to find themselves in environments which would not always adapt to their natural style of learning or doing things. Often, they will be the ones required to adapt to less-than-ideal situations and less flexible people. If they have been used to being given crutches every time they complained that walking is difficult, they might never learn how to find it in themselves to get up and walk on their own.

As the saying goes, “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.” Our job as teachers is to make what’s inside of that door inviting and valuable to you students so that you see sense in going through it yourself—not to pick you up where you’re from and carry you inside.

You have your own two feet.

You can walk.

Meet us in the in-between.

We are waiting for you.

· • ♠ • ·

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One thought on “Teacher Factor, Student Factor

  1. Do you think that inspiration from others, such as role models, is a factor in motivation? Who do you look to when you feel demotivated at a dead end?

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