Saturday, December 6, 2014

The (not so) patient teacher

I'm thinking patience may be the single most important trait for a teacher to have.

Today I was grading some written work, and as the mistakes and  deficiencies piled up, I began, as usual, to feel a mixture of irritation, frustration, and disappointment, vacillating between blaming them for not working hard enough and blaming myself for not forcing them to work harder.

Then I realized something. The things I'm asking them to do (summarize Lynn Margulis' endosymbiotic hypothesis, explain why drinking your own urine leads to dehydration, and producing a formal report on a laboratory experiment) are not easy for them. They are second nature to me, but I have the benefit of decades of repetition and experience in science and learning. And while my knee jerk reaction is to assume they just need to work harder, I need to remember the Heath brothers mantra:
  • what looks like laziness is often exhaustion,
  • what looks like resistance is often lack of clarity, and 
  • what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.

And if these skills are important, then it's worth my patient, relentless effort to help my students acquire them. They didn't draw the cells they saw under the microscope with sufficient detail? Then let's do it again. They didn't write a clear enough explanation of Margulis' theory? Then let's do it again. As Julie Sherman, my former boss and mentor used to say, "If it's not worth teaching well, it's not worth teaching."

And then I thought of something else. What makes the difference between these  students struggling to learn the basics of science, and my most advanced students who don't even need me to help them master college level chemistry?

Sometimes it seems like learning is exponential, and these struggling students just haven't gotten beyond the knee of the curve... yet. Learning a basic skill, like reading, provides the foundation for the learning of countless new skills. Learning about multiplication provides a foundation for algebra and geometry, which provide the foundation for not only calculus, linear algebra, and statistics, but physics, chemistry, engineering, and finance.

Without those foundations, you're stymied. With them, your growth is not just linear--adding one skill on top of another, it's exponential, because each new learned item makes possible not just one, but a whole new array of new items.

And what about non-cognitive skills like self-control, concentration, and grit. What is the potential once these skills have been acquired? And what's the difference between students who master these in elementary school, and those who are still missing them in high school?

And so I have to be patient, realizing that my students are all at different places in their trajectories, and before the "knee of the curve," progress can be slow. But if we keep at it, it may not always be so. They need lots of help and patience before the knee, but if they get past it... they'll leave me in the dust. And that will be worth the effort.

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