This is part two in a series of three or four reflections. In this post I’ll continue to reflect on some of the major things I’ve learned over the past 12 years of teaching.
Reflection 2: Everyone can learn, but not everyone will.
In the education world, what I’ve just written may be as close to heresy as I can get. Let me be clear that I am in no way advocating or excusing laziness or otherwise low-quality education. Nevertheless, it is simply true that some students will not learn, not because they cannot, but because they will not. This could have any number of causes, and some of them may actually be related to irrelevant, unimaginative or otherwise poor teaching. Yet this fact remains a heartbreaking truth, even if in only a few select cases.
I’ve had two such cases in my teaching career thus far. One student never wanted to be at the school, didn’t want to go abroad and didn’t want a degree. He simply wanted his parents, who wanted him to go abroad and get a degree, to get him a job. (This is not at all strange in China for those with connections.) Eventually he began intentionally failing exams so that they would have no choice but to withdraw him from the school. A second student spent several years at the school and never seemed to improve, falling asleep in almost every class. It was so bad that the teachers eventually suggested that he may have a medical disorder needing treatment. In the end it was revealed that he was simply up playing video games all night, almost every night, for almost three years.
I bring up these examples neither to shame the students nor to justify myself or the teachers. I still think about these students and wonder if there’s anything I could have done differently to spark their interest, to provide that moment wherein everything falls into place and they themselves realize the joy (not to mention the importance) of learning and of having goals. I hope the other teachers that knew them also still think of them and wonder what could have been. Nevertheless, I also recognize that given the situations in which both the teacher and the students were placed, perhaps the outcomes were simply inevitable.
As teachers we strive to motivate students, to impart a love of learning to students, and to provide the unique sets of circumstances needed to enhance students' acquisition of knowledge, be that mathematics or language or art. Try as we might, however, there may be some students whom we are simply never able to reach. Might we have? Of course it’s possible, but a teacher has limited time, materials, and ideas. Of a hypothetical 1000 different motivational techniques, perhaps #347 would have clicked with that one student, but we merely never got around to that one. Do we have remorse for the students to whom we never got through? Yes, we do, and we must, but we must have remorse with the knowledge that sometimes, with some students, for whatever known or unknown reason, we just will not be able to break through to be the change we want to be in those students’ lives. And it breaks our hearts.