There’s a great article in the Wall Street Journal about why it’s better to have a tough teacher than an easy teacher. It goes into a number of reasons why this is the case and I largely agree with one important side-note.
The author recalls a tough music teacher who berated both her and fellow students by calling them idiots, who prodded their hands and arms into the proper physical position with pokes from a pencil. The article then goes on to say that a teacher would be fired for such behavior in the modern classroom.
The article continues by citing a number of excellent studies suggesting that teachers who tell us we are wrong when we make a mistake, that make us memorize fundamental ideas, that don’t mind assigning us exercises which we are likely to fail, and who put us under stress, are almost assuredly helping us.
All this is clearly true. I’ve spoken out a number of times on this subject even suggesting that it was a mistake to allow a wrestler with cerebral palsy win a match. That we did neither the winner or loser of that match any favors.
I’m in almost total agreement with the author and the article. Almost.
The one thing the writer conveniently forgets is that for every well-meaning Mr. K out there who called people idiots not because he thought they were idiots but to encourage them to try harder. For every Mr. K out there who gently prodded with a pencil; our past education system also spawned generations of sadistic, bullying, power-mad teachers who enjoyed mentally tearing down students, played “favorites” to birth sycophantic slaves, and who got sick gratification from doling out corporal punishment. I had a couple of teachers that fit this mold and I’ll bet most of my readers did as well.
That much of the coddling of students we see today stems from reforms designed by former students who were abused in this fashion.
So, what’s the middle line? How do we get the tough, but loving, teachers who see our potential and drive us to our highest level of achievement while avoiding the sadistic psychopaths who enjoy torturing children?
There are no easy answers here at the Blog of Tom Liberman. I’m not going to stand up and call everyone else an idiot and claim there’s a simple path.
We must churn out people with education degrees who have learned these principles. In other words, we teach people to teach properly. Administrators must carefully interview potential teachers and weed out those with tendencies towards sadism. We must monitor a teacher’s progress in the classroom and, with tough love, help them improve their teaching skills.
We must listen to student and parent complaints and fairly adjudicate them. We must support teachers who practice tough love even if it hurts our feelings. We must fire, after fair warning, those who cross the line.
We must spend time and effort doing what is right, because it’s worth it in the end.
What would be the state of our educational system, our nation, and our world be if we had nothing but great teachers?
What I just wrote seems straight-forward I’m sure. Gosh, Tom, that sounds easy. Let’s get to work. Well, it’s the getting to work that’s the hard part and I like to think Mr. K. would agree. We can’t just espouse what are clearly good ideas and pat ourselves on the back.
No one can instantly make every teacher better. The Cardinals didn’t win the 2013 National League Central Division Crown with one victory (Go Birds!). It starts with one person and one action. The next action you take. The next action I take.
Each action, each decision, each moment of our lives is an opportunity to be better. That’s what being a Libertarian, what being a Objectivist means. Will I make mistakes? Was my Access 2010 class the other day not my best effort? You bet.
Will I try to do better next time? Will I realize the errors I made and correct them? How I answer is the real test.
It’s hard to pay attention to detail, to work at your craft constantly, to accept failure graciously, to change patterned behavior, to improve, to improve some more, to truly listen to ideas outside your ideology, to get better.
No easy solutions here.
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