It’s Not My Responsibility

When is a teacher free from the responsibility of teaching? I’ve heard the concept called release time. There might be other terminology for the concept, but I am not sure. So what is release time exactly?

As a teacher I provide explanations and examples to my students. I answer questions, walk through procedures, and attempt to ask thought provoking questions to stretch my students. I provide resources such as practice problems from a textbook or links to videos for further explanation. But when do I get to say, “I’ve done enough.”?

To me release time is when I get to release myself the responsibility and burden of educating a student. When release occurs the burden of education falls upon the student. However, there is not set standard for when this can be accomplished.

Is it a time thing? Are three class periods enough? Maybe a week?

Is it a certain number of exercises or worksheets?

Is it when students can successfully mimic the instruction in the class?

I find myself at an impasse. I think I have covered material thoroughly. I have explained all of my reasoning. I have used a multitude of examples of varying difficulty. Yet, in spite of my efforts, I feel like I have a large portion of my students who are willfully neglecting to learn.  I really don’t know what else I can do short of dumbing down the standard even more than I already have.

I feel like the students are being dismissal of my teaching efforts, a feeling that rarely happens on such a large scale. I know some would say it is the topic itself, that it isn’t interesting, or that it is just too difficult. It is confined to this one topic. Usually, it is a great group of kids, with great motivation, but I put the work in front of them and it’s a chorus of eye rolls, moans, and “I don’t get it(s).”

And so I am conflicted. Part of me wants to say, “screw ‘em, I’ve done my job,” but part of me is constantly trying to think of ways to make this make sense.  I can’t decide, is the shut down out lack of desire or is it because of lack of skills? If it is the latter, I can keep constructively working on improving skills, but if it is the former, there is nothing I can do. The more I watch, the more I try, the more I believe that it is the former, that they just don’t want to do this.

But I need to assess them, right? The purpose of assessment is to make sure the students understood the information. Can I give an assessment in good conscious when so many of my students refuse to participate? Maybe I should just forgo the assessment. Does the topic really matter in the all encompassing life of school? Or is that granting too much power to the students, to let them dictate the topics to be tested? I know that we always should think of the things that we can do better, but just this once is it okay to be selfish?

Can I say, just this once, that I’ve done enough?

My Goal: Make Myself Unessecary

In a three part series, I had laid out my brief journey of how I define my purpose as a teacher. In part three, I stated that my main goal, the one that keeps me coming back day after day, year after year, is to create free and independent thinkers.

Another purpose of maintaining a blog was to document interesting phenomenon as it occurred. I have several years of bound up frustration that I want to share with the world, but I want to record events as they happen, while they are fresh in my mind.

Recently I had one of those class periods where several students were out for a field trip at the end of an already grueling week, making for a period that the remaining students were pretty lackluster in their desire for mental exertion. We did a little review and then began talking. We started talking physics and one of the girls in class chimed in that she felt like she was only able to do the examples in class, that she need formulas to be able to accomplish the exercises. Here is roughly how our exchange went.

Me: “Why don’t you make up some problems?”

Another Student: “That’s what I did.”

Her: “I don’t know how.”

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I go to the board draw a little scenario. We start messing around with the problem. One of the students puts up a formula involving the square of final velocity and gravity. We are hung up on the use of acceleration due to gravity and how it would affect projectile motion. Bell rings, but I am still intrigued by the problem. Luckily, she usually stays in my room during the next class and I keep going back to the problem every so often. Eventually I come to the conclusion that the acceleration due to gravity is unnecessary.

Her: “I said that a long time ago.”

She was right, she did, but we had discounted it at the time. That, and she didn’t state that gravity was not needed she ASKED if gravity was needed. When she asked she is admitting that she wasn’t sure. She is admitting that she doesn’t want to support her idea. She is looking for me to support her idea because if I do it she can remember that she is right and never has to find a reason why her idea was right. She is granting me the power and authority of knowledge and admitting weakness.

I dismissed her because I didn’t know better. She stopped because I didn’t affirm her. What should have happened was that she would have challenged my dismissal and forced me to see how her idea was correct. She is acting as a microcosm of how school functions for many of our students. Too many of our students seek the approval of their ideas from an external source (teachers) rather than reason out the correctness of their ideas for themselves.

That’s my goal though, to rectify that scenario. Every time a student leaves my care answering every question with a question, seeking that approval, I feel like I have failed. Every time a student leaves my class feeling good about their grade, but not sure of what they know, I feel like I have failed. I want my students to be able to confidently answer questions, to reason the answers for themselves. My students should eventually view me as a resource, but not a necessity.

Maybe this isn’t such a good goal.  Is it really a great idea to make myself unnecessary?

Why I don’t do homework

I hate homework. For the few people that know me, I feel like I have at least an average vocabulary, I would pretend that it is above average. And I cannot stress the importance of the choice of words. I hate homework. I am not annoyed with homework, I am not repulsed by homework, I am not disgusted with homework. I hate homework. There are two major misconceptions about homework that I would like to attack to explain why I hate homework.

But first a clarification, homework can have a purpose. Readings that provide students with information that will be necessary for participation in a class discussion. Using flashcards to memorize medical terminology prefixes and suffixes, those are good uses of homework. So why do I have a problem with homework? Here’s why.

Homework reinforces the concepts covered in class.

If I ignore whether an assignment is graded based upon completion or accuracy, I see eight possible outcomes from the homework assignment. If a homework assignment is to achieve its maximum benefit it needs to be in a place where a student has mastered the material enough to complete the task, but still has to expend intellectual effort. The goal for this homework is that the student is moving recently learned information to become part of a long-term schema. Once in schema, the material becomes intertwined with prior knowledge and can be used to interpret and understand even more concepts.

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However, very few homework assignments covered in class actually fall into this sweet spot. If all outcomes on my flowchart have equal probability (which is a big assumption) only one out of eight homework assignments will have the desired result. Only one out of eight outcomes will reward intellectual effort positively. Seven of the eight will reward aspects of school that do not help us learn.  Imagine homework for a student, with the student thinking, “that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was dumb, that was cool, that was dumb, that dumb.” Now repeat that over and over and over for twelve years. Is it surprising that so many of our high school students have a negative view of the purpose of school?

Students need something to work on at home.

Often I will get a question from a parent the first time we meet. Usually it goes something like, “What should my child be working on at home?” Deep down I really want to tell the parent that their children should be working on whatever interests them. In reality though, I get a sense that work is associated with learning. If a large math assignment is completed, much learning has occurred. Big assignment equals big smarts (insert caveman imagery here).

But work is just that and nothing more, work. A better option for parents who are concerned with their children would be to simply have them demonstrate what they are learning in class. What follows might come in fits and bursts, with some information being comprehensible and mastered, while some of it might lack clarity, but that is the nature of learning. A student working doesn’t necessarily mean that the student is learning. Learning takes work, but not all work is learning.

So what’s the solution?

I wish there were an easy answer, but there isn’t. Research is mixed, even personal experience is mixed. So what I have chosen to do is have my students do as much work in front of me as possible. At least that way I know what they can and cannot do. I will list a practice assignment for students to work on if they desire, but it is optional. It is optional precisely because the student would need to see the benefit of homework, how homework’s purpose shouldn’t be grades, but rather homework should exist to benefit understanding and mastery. Not many take advantage of this opportunity, but a few have.

I hope more will.