I was recently contracted to work with the teaching faculty of a large public high school. My charge was to spend a few days with them, exploring how we might develop more engaging learning tasks for students.
One of the learning tasks I used, to that end, was to give each teacher a blank piece of paper, accompanied by these instructions: “Take a few minutes to reflect on some powerful learning experience in your life. Use the piece of paper I provided, in any way you choose, to demonstrate that powerful learning experience. Be prepared to share with others, in a few minutes.”
The 80 teachers in this particular session busily got about the learning task. Some drew pictures, some wrote words, some folded/bent/twisted/tore the page into altered shapes, and some did all three. Once time was called, the sharing began, first in small groups, then at-large.
To bring closure, I asked a few of the teachers to share their “product” with the group at-large. Peg (not her real name) was one teacher called upon to share. Peg was around 50 years of age, a teacher with many years of experience, most of her work being with struggling students whose primarily language is not English.
Peg displayed her sheet of paper, which she had folded in halves, then into quarters, then into eighths. As she stood before us, she nervously folded and unfolded the paper repeatedly. Peg shared that, as a 3rd grade student some 40 years ago, she struggled immensely with the concept of fractions. She told us that she just couldn’t seem to get her mind around the concept. Her father decided to help Peg develop a better understanding of fractions. The two of them would fold paper (as Peg was demonstrating), and would talk about the fractioning impact on the whole. Peg’s dad worked with her in other ways as they made and sliced pizzas, sorted marbles, measured liquids, and numerous other undertakings, all designed to help Peg “figure out” fractions.
The day of the big unit test on fractions came and Peg tackled it with renewed confidence and understanding. When the teacher returned the test, Peg was shocked when she saw that she had made an “F” on the test that she and her dad had worked so hard to prepare for.
As Peg began to look at the test more closely she saw that, on item after item related to fractions, she had gotten the answers correct. In fact, she had gotten correct answers on almost every item of the test. What she saw, to her mortification, was that the teacher had given Peg an “F” for failing to put her name on the paper. Peg told us of how she broke down when delivering the news of making an "F" to her father that evening, feeling that she was an utter failure as a learner, and feeling that she had in some way let her father down.
As Peg shared with us that “powerful learning experience,” the room in which we were meeting seemed to get 20 degrees hotter, almost immediately. Eighty sets of eyes were riveted on Peg as she, now 50 years old, stood before us and melted into tears at the injustice enacted by her 3rd grade teacher some four decades earlier. There was NOT ONE dry eye in that room as Peg sat back down. We sat frozen, in utter disbelief for several moments.
When I was finally able to regain my own composure, I underscored the fact that we as teachers most certainly touch the future, one child at a time. However, we have a moral obligation to attend thoughtfully to the learning and development of the children in our charge. That obligation goes far beyond the delivery of academic content.
We can become for children a “light house” which provides guidance, direction, and security (which is the most frequent story, by far),
we can become the source of decades of torment (as Peg had just demonstrated).
Please, oh, please, let us always choose to be the “light house.”