Saturday, March 04, 2006

The triage reflex

Not that I would ever...
It really doesn't matter who you put upon the list, for they'd none of them be missed!

The Mikado, Gilbert & Sullivan
Teachers have mystic powers. We're clairvoyant. That's right: We can tell the future. We can size up a student at a glance and know instantly whether he or she is going to flunk the class. Then you know it's not necessary to waste any time on them.

Excuse me a moment while I shift uncomfortably from foot to foot and gather my thoughts. You knew I was kidding, right? There's a grain of truth in what I was saying, but only a grain. The trick is to keep it from growing into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

By the very nature of our jobs, we teachers are horribly outnumbered. Our students have have a forty-to-one advantage over us. (Your mileage may vary. At my school, first-day enrollments are typically 42.) Therefore there is a premium on efficiency, to use our time in the most productive way possible. Though we may frequently fall short, this is nevertheless our goal. Devout Benthamites all, we must try to do the most good for the greatest number.

The corollary is obvious: We must not waste time where it will be unproductive. Even a relatively new teacher learns to size up a class in the first few days and begins to classify the students. The A students and the F students are usually the most obvious. We know, however, that if you act on a snap judgment that a student is not likely to pass, you could end up denying that student the help that would make the crucial difference between success and failure.

As for the A students, they can usually fend for themselves.

What gives the at-risk student away? Here are some harbingers of doom:
  • Misses the first day of class (never a good sign)
  • Frequently misses class (showing up just on the first day to save your spot is not enough)
  • Never brings the textbook to class (see The naked student for an extreme case)
  • Submits no work (we collect assignments to fill our empty hours with reading and grading; please do not disappoint us!)
  • Evades the assessment and placement system and sneaks into a class they're not ready for (instead of jumping ahead a semester, they end up losing a couple)
  • Dozes in class (especially if they snore)
  • Reacts to a bad score with repeated requests for “extra credit” (sorry, kid, this isn't grade school)
  • Tells you how to do your job (we try not to take it personally, but really!)
I have this bizarre conviction that every student can be saved—at least in theory, if not in practice. My conviction is based on the notion that—barring severe disability—basic math is accessible to everyone. You don't need a special “math mind,” just a rational one, to master arithmetic and algebra. The necessary logic is no more sophisticated than that which is required to live life outside a conservatorship. If only I had the time to match each student to his or her level of understanding and proceed methodically from that point...

Oops. I said “time.” That's where it all falls apart, remember? On the average, my students get about one-fortieth of my attention at the beginning of the term (and perhaps one-thirtieth or even one-twentieth near the end; attrition can be that severe). In the one-to-many relationship that a teacher has with the students, every moment in class needs to count for as many of them as possible. Our target is the vital center. Hence the most advanced kids tend to get bored and the struggling students (if they're even present) get glassy-eyed or desperate. Or desperately glassy-eyed.

Every day I need to be on guard against jumping to conclusions. I think I usually succeed but it is always difficult to reserve judgment when you recognize the signs that have so reliably signaled failure in the past. The one chance for success is to overturn the chessboard and start a new game. I assign tasks to my students involving sending me e-mail or visiting my office, looking for chances to talk to them individually and get each one on a constructive path. Somehow you have to get their attention. One of my colleagues includes in his syllabus some advice to those repeating the class:
You have got to do something different. Whatever you did last time, it got you a D or an F. If you do the same things again, you’ll get another D or another F, and you’ll have to take the course over again next semester, too. That would be a waste of time.
Just because we see the signs, we mustn't allow our expectations to victimize our students. Instead we must always be prepared to do something different. Just in case it makes a difference. Just this time.

1 comment:

The Polar Derivative said...

Well said Zeno. We must be mindful of our Jedi abilities to see the future of our students.