The narrative arc of my five years teaching only became apparent to me while writing my last post:
I won’t allow a fourteen year-old to choose to fail.
I only mention such a horribly self-aggrandizing motto because I adopted it only recently, and only after three or four years of committed heel-dragging.
Until recently, and only for one example, if a student was suspended for fighting or for possession or for substance abuse, I would halfheartedly assign some take-home work, taking their suspension as indication that this student was not school material. Upon that student’s return, I would remediate her missing instruction halfheartedly, assuming (often correctly) that another suspension was in the offing, and watch as she fell farther and farther behind, reminding myself self-righteously that the personal freedom we cherish in America sometimes means the freedom to fail.
This attitude was oftentimes subconscious, but somewhere sub-rosa I certainly saw Algebra the way basketball coaches see wind-sprints on the first day of practice: as a device to identify and eliminate the weak rather than a device for empowering the weak.
My professional transformation has been ugly and painful, honestly, mirroring my political transformation exactly, requiring me to pick away the scabs of my socially conservative youth and rid myself of this idea that public schools are ideally a meritocracy where the kids who want success the most will seek me and my instruction out, wherever I am, and if they don’t, then that’s the downside of personal freedom, a concept which I now realize is irresponsibly applied to high school freshmen who (eg.) don’t live with their parents.
This motto asks me to individualize my relationship and my instruction to every student. I believe this motto is essential to good teaching (and I acknowledge humbly that many people have come to this place before me) and I have to point out, in conclusion, that this motto is virtually impossible to apply to 100 students across five classes over an entire career. Good teaching is impossible teaching.