My kids were lucky. They had some great teachers throughout their high school years. My oldest still corrects everything for syntax errors on a regular basis due to her 11th grade English teacher. My youngest can remember the political leanings of Spain throughout the early 20th century through an interpretative dance taught by her 11th/12th grade IB history teacher. They are the extraordinary teachers about whom books are written. They have had good teachers who plodded through dense novels and even denser chemical formulas with patience. They have had teachers willing to stay after class and help sort through a difficult equation or edit a paper. But they have also had adequate teachers. I truly believe that at one point or another all teachers are just adequate- not tremendous, not inventive, not terrible- just adequate. It may be just for one class period, one week and sometimes it may be one semester, or for longer. Teachers, like everyone else, are human. And not all teachers are average to all students. Sometimes, just like in friendships, teacher and student just don’t click. Sometimes, students expect a “bad” teacher because of the past experience of a friend or classmate. Sometimes, a teacher teaches too slowly, too quickly, or in a manner which is not organic to an individual student’s learning. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work. These are the teachers we hear about as parents.
“I only had 2 more questions on the test and he wouldn’t let me finish them.”
“She is not explaining it right.”
“He wouldn’t give me an extension.”
“I did the best I could and she gave me a “B”.”
“He doesn’t have any time to help me.”
The point is: there is a huge lesson for our students to learn when dealing with a teacher who for some reason or not, does not meet our personal standards all the time. These teachers teach something more important than the quadratic formula or the underlying themes in Morrison's Beloved. They teach a skill that will benefit our students in college, grad school, and in life: stick-to-it-ness.
Malcom Gladwell writes in his book, OUTLIERS, THE STORY OF SUCCESS, “Success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.” I would add that persistence coupled with personal responsibility is the key to success in college. Southern Methodist University gives its incoming students a resource on the difference between college and high school. It’s a lesson for all high school students and their parents, as part of the college planning process.
Knowing these facts as a 9th grader could help students and parents understand that the unavailable teacher could just be a Mom who cannot come in early as her childcare opens only 30 minutes before her first class; sometimes help may be inconvenient to the student and getting help may fully depend on how much that student wants it. It could be that the student learns that producing their own study guide is a skill set that falls under the category of “independent studying", teaching personal investment and time management skills. It could be a lesson in grade expectation and inflation, trying harder next time, prioritization and planning. It could be teaching the lesson that the pathway to success is almost always littered with initial failures. It could be teaching the lesson that opportunity sometimes looks a lot like disappointment. It always teaches a lesson in persistence.
High School teachers who make students work through obstacles themselves without the safety net of the test re-take, the paper rewrite, the extension, the pre-prepared study guide are teaching our students that they must have a little skin in the game, a little personal responsibility, a “buy in.” They may be seen as not investing in our student; they may be seen as just “adequate”; they may be seen as unhelpful. What they are doing is preparing your child to have some skin in the college game.
One of the main differences between college and high school is that college, a student’s grades are results-oriented. Your college professor cares not if you stayed up all night to write a paper last minute or planned for it for 3 weeks or 3 months- that is fully on you, the student. What she cares about is what the paper says, how well it is written, how well the student manages to interpret and extrapolate from the data she shared with you in class.
College isn’t easy. It tests our students on many levels. It encourages learning and growth and persistence. It encourages personal responsibility. Successful college students work harder.
So the next time your student comes home complaining about a “B” on a paper, or not finishing those last two questions on their AP CALC test, don’t think that if he “had a better teacher” things would be different. Think instead about asking your student this, “Could you have done something different to improve those results?” or even a “what will you do differently next time to improve your grade?”
Parents think twice before insisting that your student receives the “extraordinary teacher” everyone “raves about.” At times, what students learn from an average teacher cannot be found in books. At times, not having the best teacher on the planet fosters the most learning.