Last week my third graders took the chapter 6 math test on division. We use the Go Math! program and the tests aren’t easy. This wasn’t your father’s division test. There were multistep problems, word problems, intentionally misleading questions, and it was taken digitally, so I couldn’t give partial credit to the kid who showed understanding in his work but made one small mistake that led to the wrong answer.
My students killed the thing, by which I mean, I killed the thing. My teaching led directly to the following results: one 76%, one 85%, one 88%, and the other 23 students scored 90% or above, with five students acing the test.
Let’s all take a moment to celebrate my accomplishment.
I will now accept your kudos. Feel free to email me or leave a comment on Facebook or even drop a line at the end of this article. You will no doubt want to express your gratitude to me for so effectively molding the future of this nation. My students’ parents are probably already struggling with how they will repay me for placing their children on the path to career success and personal fulfillment. The students themselves may never appreciate the impact I made on their lives. They will foolishly credit themselves, or their parents, or even the influence of their community for their accomplishments, forgetting that it was me, all me, that created their success.
I will, I am sure, be celebrated by my district. I expect a bonus, a nice fat one. Perhaps a permanent raise. Maybe a coaching position so I can share my expertise with all those teachers who aren’t getting my results. I am positive I will be asked to share at the next PD day. Someday, if I keep at it, someone will likely propose a statue be built in my honor. I will consent because I will deserve it.
Yes, I should get all the credit for my students’ success.
I know this because I have been paying attention.
My career started in 2000. No Child Left Behind was signed in 2002. So for 18 of my 20 years in the classroom, I have been told, through words spoken at district meetings, blogs published by education think tanks, studies meta-analyzed by education researchers, articles written by economists, clever slogans shared on Twitter, and legislative actions, that when a child fails, it’s on me. I, the teacher, am responsible for my students’ performance. Students don’t fail to learn; teachers fail to teach them.
The phrase “No child left behind” placed zero responsibility on society at large, parents, or students (that would have been called the Hey, Don’t Fall Behind Act). All responsibility was given to schools (and by schools, we’re mostly talking about teachers, since they were the ones doing the teaching and spending most of the time with the students). “Don’t you let them fall behind” was the unmistakable message.
“No excuses” isn’t directed toward lazy students or neglectful parents or apathetic legislators. Those two words are aimed at the people working inside of schools. “Don’t you make any excuses for students not learning” means that when students don’t learn there is only one group of people to blame. “No excuses” means no one wants to hear about anything that might impede a child’s ability to learn; teachers need to succeed in spite of those things, and if they can’t, then we need to get rid of them and find teachers who will.
“It’s not what you teach; it’s what they learn” similarly places no expectations on students. It offers them no role in their own education. They are passive receptors who if placed in the presence of excellent teachers will learn through no effort of their own.
These are the beliefs that have driven the reform movement for the last 18 years and they are what undergirds all school and teacher accountability efforts.
We punish schools when students don’t learn because it’s schools, and schools alone, that are responsible for a child’s education.
We rate teachers based on test scores because test scores tell us how effective (or, more often, ineffective) a teacher has been. No one cares how nurturing, or inspirational, or understanding a teacher is if those traits don’t translate to student achievement.
Student learning is what matters, and if it’s not happening, it’s because teachers don’t care enough, or aren’t skilled enough, or belong to unions that enable their bad habits and practices, or don’t have high enough expectations for the kids sitting before them.
The message is crystal clear and any teacher who has paid even a little attention can’t help but comprehend it:
Your students’ failures are on one person: you.
A lot of teachers have bought into this message. They’ve heard it so many times that they’ve accepted this responsibility, even though it has been placed on them by people who refuse to accept any responsibility themselves and whose motives are highly questionable.
How many teachers feel bad when students do poorly on the state test? How many feel like they are personally culpable for those results?
How many teachers lose sleep worrying over the academic performance of their most struggling students, even when it’s clear that there are reasons far beyond the influence of that teacher for the child’s struggles?
How many teachers spend their own money to enhance lessons because they take personal ownership of their students’ learning?
How many teachers wonder what they could have done for those three students who failed the test, even though the rest of the class did very well? How many teachers ignore the efforts of those students and place the blame on themselves for not finding a way to better motivate them?
How many of you wondered about that student in my class who scored a 76%? Did you question if I did enough for her?
Now, how many of those teachers who accept the lion’s share of responsibility when it comes to their students’ failures accept credit for their students’ successes?
How many brag about their students’ test scores?
How many want acknowledgment for teaching the valedictorian back when she was in fourth grade?
How many teachers want to rewarded for every one of their students who gets accepted into college?
How many teachers expect to be honored for their students’ outstanding performance?
Not many. And why not? Because it’s gauche? Unbecoming? Obnoxiously self-aggrandizing? Unprofessional?
Yes, all of those things.
But also because it’s a lie, and every teacher knows it.
Teachers do not deserve all of the credit when their students succeed, no matter how spectacularly they might. We might not even deserve most of the credit. In some cases, we deserve no credit at all.
I have two students doing independent math this year. They’re working through the program at about double the speed of their classmates and they’re doing it on their own, with no one to help them but each other. They’re succeeding spectacularly, acing test after test with no instruction from me except on the rare occasions they ask for clarification on a question. They came to me exceptionally knowledgeable and skilled. I deserve no credit for their performance.
I have two students who receive math tutoring after school. Some would learn the math without me. I could put them on Khan Academy and they’d figure it out. Others would have learned it equally well from my colleagues.
Still other students benefit from my teaching but only because they’re taking advantage of it. They’re doing the work. They’re learning from mistakes. They’re asking for help. They’re paying attention in class, not because they’re terrified of what I’ll do if they don’t but because their parents have high expectations for them or they have high expectations for themselves. They’re completing the homework, often with guidance and encouragement from parents with the time, energy, knowledge, and dispositions to assist.
A student’s success is the result of many factors, with the teacher being just one. And our influence differs from student to student, lesson to lesson, chapter to chapter, and year to year.
All teachers know this, which is why I know of no teacher who actually thinks any of the things I opened this article with.
We know that education is a team effort. It takes a supportive community, involved parents, a responsive administration, good teaching, decent facilities, capable support staff, and students with both the capacity and desire to pay attention and try their best.
Teachers should never accept the narrative that they are solely, or even mostly, responsible for their students’ failures. They should stop blaming themselves for every skill not mastered and every chunk of knowledge not remembered. If teachers aren’t willing to accept all of the credit when students succeed, then they should stop feeling all of the guilt when students fail.If teachers aren't willing to accept all of the credit when students succeed, then they should stop feeling all of the guilt when students fail. Click To Tweet
The next time you feel personally responsible for how a student did on a test or how they’re doing more generally in your class or for the fact that they grew up to become a criminal, ask yourself if you’re willing to take personal credit for your highest achievers, your hardest workers, or for the kid who grew up to run a business or a country or a nonprofit that helps the most vulnerable people on the planet.
No teacher would consider stealing credit from a child who succeeds. We should likewise stop robbing them of the lessons they could learn from failure, and we can help by first ensuring they recognize and accept their role in it.No teacher would consider stealing credit from a child who succeeds. We should likewise stop robbing them of the lessons they could learn from failure, and we can help by first ensuring they recognize and accept their role in it. Click To Tweet
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I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort is starting this summer, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to receive a reminder email to sign up for Early Bird Access on June 8.