You don't think all kids can learn?!

On March 1st, the Seattle Times published an OpEd where the author argued that teachers can only teach the students who come to class motivated to learn, and that students who come to class disinterested or apathetic do not deserve the right to be called a student. In the piece, the teacher divorced himself from the idea that it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach every student in his or her class.

I spent the last four years teaching middle school in South Central Los Angeles.  According to Mr. Magill, many of my students probably were not “students.”  Many came from broken homes, difficult living arrangements, and had varying levels of support outside of the classroom.  But I demanded high achievement from them, and they gave it to me.  Not only did our school return high scores on the state test, but we were able to engage all of our students through a challenge-based curriculum that emphasized creativity and critical thinking.

As educators, it is our job to light the fires underneath our students and show them that the world is a place that can be changed. We must encourage curiosity, critical thinking, and embrace mistakes our students make. The “teachable” ones in Mr. Magill’s classroom are teachable because someone took the time to show them that learning is valuable and knowledge is equal to power. The students categorized as “unteachable” still need to be reached, and it’s a tragedy that they could be in classrooms such as Mr. Magill’s.

Let’s apply Mr. Magill’s logic to the field of medicine. Over the last hundred years, how we treat injury and disease has continued to progress. Billions of dollars are poured into the field every year in search for new methods. However, this has not happened in education.  In the vast majority of our schools, methods of teaching and learning have changed little in the last hundred years.  In my opinion, what we do in our classrooms is just as important as what is going on in our hospitals.  If doctors were still using the same tools and treatments as they were a hundred years ago, the fault would be on the hospital and its lack of reform and innovation.  With Mr. Magill’s reasoning, patients would remain sick until they have the sufficient desire to get better.

I find it ironic that this piece questioning the “teachability” of students was likely composed on a device created by a person who would have been labeled “unteachable,” and therefore undeserving of the title “student”. Thankfully, Steve Jobs’ parents had the foresight to call the school’s methods of instruction into question and seek out learning experiences that would challenge their son and embrace his questioning of the status quo.

It is clear that we need to rethink what we call teachers.  A “teacher” should be someone who does everything within his or her power to create rigorous learning experiences that engage, motivate, and allow students to be creative.  Our future success as a species hinges on the ability for all of us to become teachers and to cultivate a generation of citizens capable of solving the difficult problems that lie ahead.

In conclusion, I’m extremely troubled by the idea of there being teachers in classrooms who have the preconceived notion that not all students are “teachable”. Since students are required by law to be in classes, children are sitting in classrooms in which the adults entrusted with their well being believe their efforts to be in vain. Underachievement in our schools is a solvable problem.  We should be hiring teachers who believe in each and every student in their classrooms and equipping those teachers with the skills and tools necessary to create a culture of achievement and success.  Giving up on our children can never be the answer.

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