Friday, February 01, 2008

The Circle of Inadequacy

When I got to school this morning there was an email waiting for me from a parent. She had something to tell me but preferred to speak rather than type about it, and asked me to call at my earliest convenience.

What did I screw up this time?

Well, I called during my prep period, and she was pleased that I responded so quickly. Then she told me the problem, and it's a biggie: her kid senses that I get frustrated whenever he/she asks a question in class.

The bad part is, I know what mom's talking about. It relates to my deepest, darkest fear about teaching--that I'm not doing it well enough.

Yes, I know there are times that everyone in class won't understand something. Yes, I know that I have a sign on my wall that says "I can teach it to you, but I can't understand it for you." Yes, I know that students have the lion's share of the responsibility for their learning.

But when one of them--especially a very bright one--doesn't understand something, can I honestly say, every time, that I'm 100% sure that I've done the absolute best possible job teaching? Have I lived up to 100% of my responsibility?

I know the answer isn't always "yes". There are times when I know there must be some better way of explaining a topic, but I don't know what that better way is. I admit to being a knowledgeable, competent teacher, but not a Superteacher (like these). My fear is that it's my fault a student doesn't understand the material, that if only I were a better teacher, everything would be fine.

And that's what frustrates me. And that frustration is what the student in question is picking up on. My frustration isn't directed at the student, though. Far from it, I'm frustrated at myself. Why am I not explaining this well? Why can't I get this point across?

Why can't I teach this better?

I explained this to the student today, and apologized for giving the impression that I'm frustrated with the student. The student graciously accepted my explanation--but still doesn't understand the recent material.

So I'm right back where I started. What can I do better?


Amerloc said...

This isn't about "teaching better," anymore then it's about the student somehow "learning better." It's about every teacher's frustration at teaching brilliantly (we all do it at least some of the time) and having that brilliance go right over someone's head.

First, the teaching wasn't wasted: the rest of the class got it, right? Of course, we should admit the remote possibility that this student is just the only one with the nerve to insist on understanding, and if so, they deserve applause rather than frustration.

Second, I'm going to go back to your post about Mrs. Barton: "She held us to the highest standards, and she drilled us until we met them. All of us met them." That tells me that as super as she might have been, not all of you got it the first time, even something as simple as multiplication tables (I know: those are more drill-and-kill than the math you're trying to teach, but the principle remains the same) - she acknowledged the need to reteach (and reteach, and reteach again) when it was necessary.

To shorten this up: it's not about doing anything "better" the first time. It's about realizing that every once in a while, no matter how good we are, we have to back up and approach the goal from a different angle. The best part about that is that it keeps our thinking fresh, even about something we know backwards and forwards.

Ellen K said...

I worry about that, too. There are just times that a student will struggle in a class regardless of what a teacher does in class. It is frustrating. But sometimes I think parents of bright students have very serious problems in allowing their children to learn from failure. I will have more conferences with the parents of bright kids debating a grade than I will with my students that fail. On one hand, perhaps you were frustrated. After all, you are human. But also, students WILL use any crutch to defend less than perfect grades. Probably the scariest conference I have ever had was with a man who was sure that I was picking on his daughter. What had happened is that she was talking in class and I asked her by name to stop and she failed to put her name on a project, which meant she had a zero for that grade. Both incidents had been blown way out of proportion by the student, who was used to getting A's in every class. So while it's great that you are changing your style, be aware that students can say things out of context just to stampede parents into action.

allen said...

You certainly did the right thing by not allowing the frustration to grow into an issue in itself.

Sounds like there's some basic, conceptual confusion.

Something you're assuming is understood that isn't.

That's showing up as confusion on the part of the kid but a secondary confusion. A confusion that's based on not understanding some underlying idea. But the underlying idea, assumed to be understood, isn't considered as the source of the problem.

Took me till 8:30PM to get Murial, da graphic awtist from New Yawk tuh unnestan about duh filin' system onna compewtuh but when I dug some manila folders out of the office supply and built "file manager" the light went on - "oh, so dees aw like real foldas den?" One of the other instructors referred to the light going on as the "oh wow" moment.

socalmike said...

I've been teaching for 24 years, and I still feel that way sometimes, too. In fact, it happened this past week, and it kinda depressed me a little.

The problem also lies in the fact that you can't just stop the class and teach that one student while the rest of the class goes into Mayhem Mode. One on one time is valuable, but can't happen whenever you want.

So then you have to bring in the student at lunch or after school or something, and maybe they can't because they have sports or band or something.

Then you're right back to where you were - the Circle of Inadequacy has not been broken.

So it all goes back to the sign on your wall - some how, that student needs to understand the material - maybe someone else (parent, friend, past teacher) has a successful system that works with that student, and then you're all good.

But don't stress out too much - it happens to all of us.

Quincy said...

"Why am I not explaining this well? Why can't I get this point across?"

Usually, when you're asking that, the real question is "What piece(s) of pre-requisite understanding is the student missing?"

A good, but sometimes time-consuming strategy for dealing with this is what I call "backtracking". Start with the immediate confusion, and begin asking the student questions about material that came before it. Using allen's example above, it would go something like this:

T: "Do you understand how the files on this computer are organized?"
S: "No."
T: "Do you see how these icons look like file folders, and how these icons look like pieces of paper?"
S: "Yes."
T: "Does that help you understand how this works?"
S: "No."

At this point, you now know that the student is correctly identifying what each icon represents (and understands that icons represent things), but is not able to understand how those representations show how the files are organized.

Now, you can work towards an understanding by finding a way to explain or demonstrate that the files go into folders, and the folders go into other folders, etc.

This activity can also work when an entire class isn't getting something, as often times there is some missing piece shared by most of the class.

Joe Mehsling said...

If you ever move to Northern Colorado... you are hired! All I can add is that if all of us in education practiced your degree of self reflection we'd be much better off!


Darren said...

Longmont? Having lived a few years in Colorado Springs, I might take you up on that! I've done 6 years in junior high schools, though, and after having been to the promised land of high school, I'm not sure I could go back!

I appreciate your comment, though. Thank you.

(BTW, that white text on electric red background on the school web site is very hard to read!)

Anonymous said...

The student in question is one who spent two years in my math classes, and asked an average of somewhere around 7 questions per day. She asks questions because she truly wants to know the material. You shouldn't feel bad -- this student is allowing you an opportunity to reteach material that other students are too shy to ask about. Let your class flow around the questions -- if you lose a day, accept it. It's better to fall behind with well prepared students than to progress with morons . . .


Anonymous said...

While the review of concepts (as above) is probably most important, a couple of specific examples of applying the concept are almost certain to help.

Ask a sample test question, and then go thru the answer step by step (or ask the class for each step?).
~ Tom Grey

Joe Mehsling said...

About the colors. I had kids begin the basic outline of the website a few years ago. Now that I'm up to speed on Dreamweaver I may make it a little less busy!