Unacceptably long (sent to Latin Best Practices listserv)


I noticed this thread a while back and determined to read all the posts once finals were over and grades in. I’ve sent every one of them to my friend, Brian for discussion over coffee. Bob’s invocation of trust as the essential element in education (and a lot else) struck me the hardest. Trust was one of the early topics on my blog and I intend to take it up again.
I suffer over grades, as do many. But after 3 and a half years at this school teaching only Latin, I have some exhibits to offer the court. This is hard for me to do b/c I don’t want to have to deal with repercussions, but I must confess I simply don’t give out low grades; they accomplish nothing positive in a fl class. One girl who surely could have been flunked her first two years has gone on to fourth year. The nay sayers will scoff and say that’s b/c she gets good grades without hard work when she is now at a place where she can read Latin. She’s not at the level the other two fourth year students are, but she is way beyond where she started and I thought that was the idea.
About four boys were equally flunkable last year but I stayed with them. They are all performing at adequate levels this year and may go on to third year. I have two students in third year who could have been flunked out their first year but have been able to slowly grasp the notion of reading Latin. One of them turned out to be learning disabled. Just in the last few days I found another boy I had worked with is being tested for LD. I always saw something irregular in his pattern of behavior and study.
That leads to a special consideration: I came to teaching out of an extensive background in counseling and clinical work. That certainly gives me an ability to spot kids with difficulties that need to be worked with. But don’t all teachers have to take at least one course in the psychology of learning and one in learning disabilities?
And yet what I hear from so many teachers is the opposite of a professional approach: I hear “lazy”, “lacks a work ethic”, “just doesn’t care”, “isn’t motivated”, and so on, the litany of teacher complaints about students. They certainly do not trust students. I hear the other side; students tell me they learn in my class, I talk to them, I am fair, etc. I remonstrate with them, saying that surely their teachers talk to them and that they learn from that; in addition, students often find teachers’ judgment to be unfair even as they know deep down it is fair. Then they proceed to detail precisely what it is teachers do or don’t do. Of course, I know their teachers and can tell whether their comments ring true. In addition, I know the students and know these are top students who are not chronic belly-achers and excuse makers. What they say rings true. There is a good deal of mistrust on both sides.
Wherein lies the trust I have in students? Partly it’s in myself; it is in the way scholars keep pressing for answers to how we learn language and how best to teach language. To my mind, too many teachers look for a one-to-one correspondence between their objectives and students’ performance, i.e. if they are to trust, it means a student must do well on a particular assignment or test; if they do not, the teacher throws up his hands and exclaims, “See, you’ve got to just pound it into them. You can’t trust them to do it on their own.”
I get the feeling in talking to people who read my writing on listservs that they believe I am totally self-confident. Not at all. After 25 years of teaching, I doubt every day the effectiveness of what I am doing and how I am doing it. I try to be as objective as I can; I certainly don’t discount that I am in a private school that selects students rather carefully. When I worked in a large public school, I did give out lower grades. However, I was very careful to do that only for students who had resisted trying to learn. What I was signaling was: This student resists even trying to learn and needs special care to get them on the right track. What a lot of teachers do is give a low grade on the basis that the student receiving that grade did try, did improve, but got only 69% of the vocabulary items right vs their colleagues who got over 90% right. But what if the 69%er is encouraged and winds up eventually getting to much the same place the 90%er is? Just how does it matter that the 69%er took longer?
My recent final was a component final, meaning, as a summative  test,  it is made up of various sections. I gain a lot, I think, when I read over these exams, seeing who did well in which section. It also allows me to grade the student on the several sections he (they) did well on and discard the ones he didn’t do well on. It tells me a lot about what students take in when I teach and when classroom dynamics take over. The idea of a direct line between teacher and student seems ridiculous to me. Much intervenes between what I do and what the students do. The notion of direct instruction can be indulged only by people who have a very shallow appreciation of human beings.
I want my students to learn how to learn, to trust themselves, to trust each other, and to start trusting a teacher. I write the term “learned helplessness” on the board and we discuss it from time to time. This year was the funniest. I have a German exchange student in class and as the other students were puzzling over what I mean by learned helplessness, he finally turned to them (he sits in front) and pronounced, “He meansss he isss not your fazzer or your muzzer.” It was hilarious and deadly accurate. There’s a big difference between scaffolding and smothering or scolding.
I used to argue with this wonderful teacher, on a listserv. She taught for 50 years and eventually retired. Unfortunately, she is no longer with us but I had a number of opportunities to talk with her face to face at conferences and argue endlessly on line. The one thing that would get her crazy mad at me was when she thought I was attacking teachers. There were times when it was fair to say I was attacking teachers, I suppose, but most of the time I was trying to shed light on things teachers did that fouled things up.
One of those things was being passive-aggressive. Another was the “I’m just a teacher” attitude. Deep down, it was about what my friend, Brian calls “giving the illusion of magic”, i.e. “the sage on the stage” syndrome. Once you believe, as I once read another teacher write, that you should go into the classroom always being right and knowing everything, anything or anyone that threatens that armor becomes the enemy. Anyone, teacher or not, who asks for a rationale for teacher behavior is attacking the teacher. Anyone who asks for accountability is attacking the teacher. Anyone who asks for a certain level of competence is attacking the teacher. Anyone who thinks teachers need to keep in mind the job administrators have to do is an enemy. Most of all, anyone who undervalues the vast classroom experience of teachers is an enemy.
I recall teachers going into the principal with a list of demands, all based on the premise that the only matter of importance was the teacher’s notion of what constituted good practice. Most of the time they would emerge with a sense of righteous indignation that their demands had been modified or turned down flat. Part of that could certainly have been the principal’s inability to appreciate the situation, but a good deal of it was the teacher’s inability to appreciate the margins the principal had to work in. I remember my principal telling me, when we were threated with the loss of our ASL teacher, “Pat, that’s why we don’t like to offer courses which only one person can teach.” As tough as it was to swallow, I realized that my Russian and Latin courses depended on me being there (no problem, since I think I had one sick day, maybe none, all the 20 years I worked there). You see why I question the rush to Mandarin.
To wrap this tome up, I will say that yesterday, a week after starting it, I went into work and found an e-mail from a parent saying: “I want to thank you for your kindness towards [student] during this past semester. As you may or may not know she has a learning disability and your help in Latin was greatly appreciated. Unfortunately she will not be able to return to [school] next semester because of her other classes. [signed: parent]”
Recently I found out her grandfather was dying as well. She has many relatives attending the school, so she was by no means an outsider. She had learning disabilities. There are many ways to a language. I was having problems with her initially precisely because she was resisting, quite actively, trying to learn. I let her sit with another girl; the two talked soto voce incessantly. Nevertheless, I let it continue. The other girl wound up doing fine as proved by her final. The student in question, when I was about to sink her, showed up for a make-up and earnestly showed me a plan she had devised for learning the vocabulary of our stories. She did better on tests & quizzes and showed other signs of trying and actually learning. Was she up to the other students? No.
So my question is: what is my purpose? We wouldn’t want to run a boot camp where we gave soldiers time to catch on because in combat they would endanger the lives of their fellows (see Band of Brothers for two examples of incompetent officers). But is a preparatory high school a boot camp? It certainly could be; there’s nothing wrong with a mission of weeding out those who are not picking up the student skills necessary for spectacular success in college. But then why do we accept students like this girl I cite?
Last year I had two e-mails from a parent where she was quite open about her anger toward other teachers who took a “sink or swim” attitude. She pulled her boy out and sent him back East, saying she would not be doing that if his other teachers were like me. She provided evidence that he was applying Latin at home, learning science via Latin, and genuinely enthusiastic about the class. He was showing progress by the end of the year. He was one of that bunch I cited above, only he left the school.
One reason I share this with Latin Best Practices is there seems to be a greater flexibility among the list members here. Other listservs would see a barrage of invective hurled my way for “not being honest” about the students. How am I not being honest? They learned Latin. Isn’t that the point?

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