Someone asked me today, What is the role of the teacher? and I, unsuprisingly, suggested an answer

by Mr. Sheehy

This week has been odd in the world of the Internet. I have received two messages from students in other states asking me about their own work in their own classes. I have never met either of them. One was from Ohio, where a young lady wanted to see the map my students created for To Kill a Mockingbird, because she was assigned to make a map for her class. She was even wondering about page numbers, which had me asking whether this was an example of wonderful initiative or bold cheating, and then it occurred to me to ask, can it be both of those things?

The second note was attached as a comment to the article I wrote ages ago called What is the purpose of school? An informal and very unscientific survey. It continues to be my most-read post, mostly because it is the top hit on Google when one searches for “purpose of school.” I have a suspicion that some college professor in an education department out there assigns students to answer the question themselves and they search for it on Google, ending up on my blog. Hopefuly my post will be fairly useless to them in that endeavor, and if not, at least it is so long that they have to work for it.

Anyway, I thought I would grab that second exchange and publish it as a full article, since as usual my response was likely more extended than the inquirer had hoped to receive.

Zac says:

Thank you. I have a question for you, if you wouldn’t mind. I wonder if you could answer the question before reading what else I wrote, then tell me both answers after you fully understand the situation.

What is the job of a teacher?

First, a little background: I’m a junior at a High School in the SF Bay Area, California. I’m number one in my class, taking three AP classes. English, Biology, and Chemistry. I have a hard schedule, yes (also Spanish III and Precalculus). My Chemistry class, however, is extremely aggravating. My teacher gives us homework every day. Sounds regular, no? It, however, is amplified in difficulty due to the fact that she does not teach us the information. Oh sure, she gives us packets of notes, tells us to read the book. I’m sorry, that’s not teaching. If I could learn all of the information from reading the text, why would I be spending my time in that class? It’s extremely aggravating and discouraging especially because I wish to have a profession in the physical sciences, and the subject really interests me. I’m willing to work hard to learn, but I cannot figure out all the material by myself. My mom is a vet, has a doctorate in animal sciences. I was attempting to complete homework, and she could not help me in the least. Just today, I asked our teacher to explain to us how to do a problem. After much complaint and a rant about how we should have already learned this (in what class would we have learned how to use the Clausius-Clapeyron equation? Is it not her job to teach it to us as it is only discussed in AP Chemistry?). Reluctantly, however, she went over it. And got it wrong. I, actually, got the correct answer before she did. There are answer manuals in the classroom, and between the little work shown in that and what she was demonstrating, I figured out what we were supposed to be doing. We spent the entire hour and a half going over two problems. The thirteen other problems we had for homework? I am reluctant to even try because I know that I don’t know the information. The whole class, only twelve of us because the rest dropped, agrees with my thinking. What can we do? There is not another science teacher at the school with an extra period who could teach the subject, so we’re stuck with her. Can you help me?

Thank you.

My answer:

Wow, Zac, that’s quite a story.

First, I’ll tell you that you tempted me to play the game, and I wrote an answer to your question before hearing your story.

What is the role of a teacher?

I said, “To assist students as they attempt to educate themselves for a fulfilling participation in our society.”

My answer surely would aggravate you, given your story, but then, I had not read your story before developing my answer.

A key part of my answer, of course, is that I as a teacher am just an assistant. Students have me for one subject, for one year, but their education takes 12 years to complete (not considering college), so saying I am an assistant is mostly recognizing my small role in the overall education of the student.

I also say “assist” because if a student is going to learn, he or she needs to be the one working. If one simply “plays school,” one can get the grades needed and learn nothing. Lots of my students play school well, but when we have conversations or when I ask for creative, non-traditional work, they often expose their lack of depth.

Now, as to your chemistry experience: it reminds me of a theory I have about physics. I took physics in high school and my classmates and I labeled our physics teacher no good and said he/she (I won’t tell) was a nice person but a bad teacher. Then later in life I met other people who claimed the same thing about their physics teachers, and I hear students at my school claim the same thing about our physics teachers. The common factor here is physics, and I’ve come to realize this: physics is hard.

Not much of a realization, I know, but the deal is, I am convinced, that the subject matter takes a great deal of independent hard work and application. A teacher can explain it in a lot of ways, but not every concept can be illuminated with a quick and cute analogy and a relation to some common concept of our world. I can do that in English with almost all our literature terms and other content. I can watch clips from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to illustrate a character foil, and I can invent alternative definitions of basic grammar terms, but when you’re talking about AP Chemistry and “the Clausius-Clapeyron equation,” you’re talking about complex stuff that isn’t so simple to pack into a nicely wrapped box. Your experience is echoed by hundreds of college freshmen all across America, freshmen who think if the professors cared about their students, they would be able to explain everything quickly and make it all make sense in just a few minutes. But those profs don’t, and those students (many of whom are pre-med, carrying visions of themselves wearing stethoscopes for the rest of their lives) often drop out of science classes and find something that fits their idea of possible.

Hearing your story, I think of one thing in particular. Somewhere along the line you have been tricked into thinking it is bad that you figured something out before the teacher. If my daughter and I are reading a book and I read it wrong and she catches me, she gleefully tells me I got it wrong and then tells the story to her mother like it’s the funniest thing ever: “Daddy said the dog was green, but he was blue!” She celebrates her achievement. Why shouldn’t you celebrate your achievement? Who says the teacher is always right? You are engaged in a difficult subject–high level chemistry. You have now reached a point in your schooling where your subject matter is difficult, no matter who you are.

Sure, a college prof might be more comfortable with that material, but that is especially because she/he gets to work with it all the time and is primed for problems like the one you mentioned. Your teacher might spend most of her day trying to get freshmen in physical science to write down the parts of a cell, which means she does not have opportunities to sink herself in high level chemistry all day. Your mom is in the same situation. If she’s a vet, she’s done what you’re doing, but she hasn’t done it for 20(?) years and it’s not like riding a bike–it doesn’t just “come back” to you. It has to be practiced and practiced. Take me, for example. I just finished a master’s degree, but the other day I had to do some long division and I hesitated, forgetting for a couple moments how to begin. I hadn’t done long division in I don’t know how many years, and I’d forgotten.

The other thing about your teacher is that I obviously do not know her. You have had some personal interactions with her that have left you feeling chaffed. I’d say two things to something like that. One is that you might not want to be too hard on every comment. Many AP teachers feel pressure to get through the content that will be on the test, and if things are going slowly, they might direct frustration to their students if their students don’t know what the teacher hopes they know. It’s a mistake on the teacher’s part to fall into thinking about the content before thinking about the students, but as a teacher, I know it is an easy trap to fall into when you have the pressure of an AP class.

The second thing is more practical, however. No one should let a frustrating teacher interfere with his or her goals. This is your education, not hers. She is your assistant in your education, so you should not let your frustration with her derail you. Take pride in how much you are learning as you work your tail off. Study those handouts, study that book (not just read it), and ask questions in class that go beyond them. Push yourself so hard that your teacher needs to push herself to keep up with you.

You asked what the role of the teacher is, and I’ve answered in part. Another relevant question I’d like to propose: what is the role of a student? Any thoughts?