580. The “Sink or Swim” Approach

Over the years, I’ve spoken with a few teachers who seemed, to me, to hold their pupils totally accountable for what they learned. As I’ve seen it, these teachers did what they considered teaching, and left it entirely up to the pupils to take advantage of that teaching, and learn. If some pupils didn’t learn as much as others, it was their loss – a loss they’d chosen to bring on themselves. Too bad, thought these teachers. And they slept well at night, not trying to figure out what they ought to have been doing differently.
These teachers believed in the “sink or swim” approach. I don’t. I think teachers can commit themselves to teaching in ways that help all children learn to become more and more accountable for their own learning. That help may involve trying out new techniques, new materials, and/or new ways of thinking. And the ultimate goal ought to be to get pupils to a point where they can take over their own education. But if that isn’t happening, I don’t think it’s appropriate for a teacher to give up and wash his or her hands of the problem.
I’m not saying that’s easy. And I’m not saying that I, as a teacher, worked consistently to give all children the same degree of commitment. Like children and everybody else, I tried harder when I smelled success.
I wanted my efforts to bear fruit, and sometimes, if it didn’t seem as if a certain child wanted to succeed, I got tired and didn’t try as hard. I didn’t quite give up, but I was closer to the “sink or swim” approach than I wanted to be.
Teachers often support each other. When pupils, pupils’ parents, or administrators behave in ways that make teachers feel like victims, teachers can often turn to their colleagues for help in getting through those hard times. And I remember times like that. Most teachers tried to help me figure out what I could do to make things better, but some told me that it was not my job to make things better – that my job was to JUST TEACH. They told me I shouldn’t lose sleep over problems that were not mine.
I’m not advocating loss of sleep. But I don’t like the phrase “just teach.” Teaching isn’t just one thing to do. It can involve lots of time and energy beyond the time and energy spent in school. If a child is not succeeding, that child’s teachers bear a whole bunch of responsibility. Responsibility is not the same as blame, but there’s work to be done, and it’s not all the child’s work.
It’s a tricky balancing act. If a certain child is having trouble in school, the teacher has to think, this is NOT my FAULT, but I’m going to do all I can to figure out what’s going on, and what I can do to make success happen. And at night, the teacher ought to sleep.

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