By: Yarone Tokayer, Physics Teacher
This past March, SAR High School’s Drama Society performed a deft and moving performance of The Miracle Worker, the story of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller’s lifelong tutor. The audience was taken on a journey through Sullivan’s profoundly frustrating, but ultimately graftifying, approach to education: an unwavering faith in Helen’s abilities and a refusal to let anyone sell her short. Seeing the play in the school where I teach, being performed by students I teach, was a very powerful experience for me, since it highlighted a tension I feel deeply every day at SAR. It is a tension between two beliefs. I believe that my students are unique, that each has particular strengths and weaknesses, and that therefore, each ought to be taught toward distinct goals. I also believe that every student in my class can be successful—that is, (1) feel gratified from an understanding of the course, (2) prepare work they are proud of, and (3) feel a sense of belonging—within a relatively standardized program.
Three scenarios (corresponding to each of the three metrics of success listed above) that illustrate how these beliefs can work against each other:
(1) My class is taking a test and a student is stuck in the middle of the problem. My first belief would have me ask guiding questions to point him toward the right approach. My second belief has me worry that in doing so, I am depriving him of the satisfaction of solving the problem, and moreover, that the student will not retain the skill as well since he did not come to it on his own. It also has me worry that I am reinforcing the student’s belief that he could not have done the test without help. (At least once every exam, I have a student approach me with a lot to say, but without a question or apparent difficulty. It is as if he is looking for my “permission” to write his response.)
(2) I receive a sloppy, unstapled homework assignment from a student. My first belief will have me consider the fact that the student might struggle with executive functioning difficulties or dysgraphia, and has 9 other demanding classes, and therefore I should grade the work with no penalty. My second belief asserts that if the student was forced to, she would hand in legible and neat work that she is proud of, and that once she sees that she can produce quality work, will demand that of herself in the future. In that case, I should not accept the homework and should ask for a resubmission.
(3) A student is consistently late to tefillah in the morning. My first belief is understanding of the fact that the morning rush is unpredictable and that waking up is a very difficult part of the day—especially for teenagers. Furthermore, structures that work for one student can be seen as pedantic or arbitrary by another, who can then be turned off from prayer and religious community involvement by strict rules. My second belief sees value in the student being part of a school community, and hopes that with enough enforcement, the student will also come to value his own participation in community prayer, whatever that may look like. Everyone is capable of making it a point to be on time on a regular basis. At best, our policies will help the student internalize how important we think tefillah is, and will foster a profound sense of belonging in our religious community.
Students often want handholding. As an educator, I often ask myself: when do they actually need guidance and when can they be pushed to try again on their own? How much frustration should I allow a student to experience when learning? At what point do I concede that not every student has it in them to be another Einstein or Curie? How do I distinguish between genuine effort and complacency with mediocrity? (When am I, the teacher, making a justified exception, and when am I just being expedient?) I think that these questions can be unified succinctly as follows: How are we to balance a deep respect for our students’ particularity with a faith that they can be pushed to become more than they think they can be?
There is a fine line between validating a student’s struggles on the one hand, and underselling them on the other hand. One opens doors and the other closes doors; one gives a student the sense of self-worth and support to move forward, while the other reinforces low self-esteem and stifles growth. It seems to me that teaching is an exercise in walking this line: without support, a student has no starting point from which to begin the learning process; without aspiration, no education will take place.
At the climax of The Miracle Worker, Ms. Sullivan succeeds in training Helen to sit at the dinner table with proper manners. The parents are thrilled, but Ms. Sullivan is dissatisfied. She continues to expect more of Helen. She believes that Helen’s education must continue beyond behavior, into an ability to understand and communicate with others, despite her disabilities. Had Ms. Sullivan been content, it would have undermined her entire approach: her goal was not to raise the bar that separated Helen’s abilities and inabilities, but to remove the bar entirely. Imagine then, the possibilities for our students, who are so apparently talented and capable. When we look at them, do we take what’s in front of us at face value, or do we see what’s still unlocked? We should aim to strike the right balance of understanding, nurturing, and demanding, to open up worlds of possibilities for our students during these formative years of their lives.