Do educators need to believe in their students?
It is not exactly earthshaking news that educators sometimes are frustrated by their students. I've heard the gamut of insults — ranging from the mildly disapproving to the obscene — used by educators to describe those in their charge. This should not be a surprise. As any parent knows, children and adolescents can be frustrating, irresponsible and sometimes downright mean. Educators cannot be expected to be any more saintly than the mommy ranting about some inexplicably stupid or thoughtless action by her child, and we should be grateful that good teachers and administrators know it would be both damaging and unprofessional to vent on a student — so they complain in private to their colleagues.
However, there is a broad gray area between a passing human reaction to a student's behavior and presuming that your students are complete losers. The dirty little secret of public education is that many schools continue to employ teachers who are convinced that their students are irreparably damaged by their parents, neighborhoods and life histories — so little or nothing should be expected from them.
All of this does raise an interesting question: To what extent is an educator's effectiveness driven by sheer optimism, and should anyone be allowed to continue in the profession — as either a teacher or administrator — when that optimism about the potential of your students is long gone?
I've worked around colleagues who are unrelentingly cheerful in the face of adversity — and others who are adverse to all cheer. The comforts of being old man (or old lady) grumpus are obvious: no one asks you to do much beyond the bare minimum, the failures of your students are clearly not your fault and no one messes with you because they don't wish to be subjected to your withering mockery. Wrapped in a blanket of perversely comforting negativity, these educators are allowed to continue to work in a system that apparently presumes attitude has nothing to do with effectiveness.
However, I wonder whether it is wise to continue to allow these individuals to remain in our public schools. In order to explore this question, let us think about three of the most important duties of an educator — motivator, manager and role model — and how the daily manifestations of these duties are deeply affected by antagonism toward one's students.
Effective motivation requires keen abilities to both read students and make instantaneous decisions about how to push those students out of their comfort zones and into the often uncomfortable business of learning. This process is helped greatly by an abiding interest in — and concern for — your students. Also, given that an ability to motivate students to learn is certainly based on an educator's core belief that learning is possible, it does seem that some degree of optimism is necessary to do the job. Moreover, the daily business of managing a school or a classroom is often a matter of the educator managing his or her own reactions when confronted with the swirl of insecurities, jealousies, hormones and yearning needs that is the very fabric of childhood and adolescence. If an educator has a negative bias toward his or her students, this swirl can easily be transformed into a maelstrom because behavior that has nothing to do with how that child feels about teachers, administrators, education — or much of anything beyond the boundaries of that child's own internal struggles — is considered proof positive of that student's utter unworthiness.
As for being a role model, it doesn't take much to explain how any educator who uses words to wound can quickly — and sometimes permanently — damage a child or adolescent who is desperately looking toward the adults for clues about how to be a grown-up. In addition, in situations where a child may not be receiving any positive feedback from an adult at home, any cutting comments from an educator can be even more damaging than usual.
Please understand I am not suggesting that educators must project a Pollyanna-like positivity in all their dealings — this would not be reasonable. However, just as we should be concerned about a police officer who is certain everybody they meet is a criminal or a lawyer who believes every client is guilty as sin, educators who presume their students are destined to fail from the very first day those children file in the door should not be kept around to continue to damage our impressionable young.
Although some students will certainly fail for reasons no school can remedy because of personal disadvantages that are insurmountable, the vast majority of our students can learn and should at least be provided with the simplest of all advantages: to be educated by those who believe in their potential and will work to teach them instead of doing the absolute minimum necessary to pencil whip them on to the next grade.
Given all the reasons to do so, it seems sensible to focus on ensuring that we place educators into our schools who believe their students have the potential to succeed at demanding academic work and who will not simply pass out busywork they will check off regardless of whether it is done well or not — or even whether it is done at all. If we do not make this so, we can expect nothing other than more and more young adults entering the world lacking the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in life. Our nation deserves our best efforts in this regard — just as our students deserve educators who will teach them to put forth their best effort.
There is, however, one circumstance that should prompt educators to openly express their frustration: when any student does not work to his or her potential. Indeed, the understandable disappointment a dedicated educator feels when students sell themselves short by failing to push for their highest level of achievement is a sign of just how much those teachers and administrators care about helping their students to succeed. That educator's need to have every student learn and grow is the sincerest form of belief in the futures of our children and adolescents — and this is precisely what we need to make certain is the norm in all the schools in our nation so that every child and adolescent has their best shot at a happy and fulfilling life.
Andrew Wilk is a former teacher at Urbana High School and a regular commentator on education issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.