If You Teach And No One Learns, Did You Really Teach?

Jose Vilson Education, Featured

This past week, my school had parent-teacher conferences. It’s like Christmas four times a year…

Sidenote: When I said this aloud to one of my classes, one of my students said “Doesn’t that mean you have Christmas five times a year including Christmas?” I responded, “Nah, because it’s not exactly Christmas, but it’s like Christmas, though.” He scratched his head and got back to work. He might be right, though.

… Anyways, I love these conferences. Contrary to popular belief, I love the idea of meeting parents face-to-face instead of through the phone. I love that I leave my door open for rolling appointments with members of this community. I love the nervousness from students beforehand, and the incessant question “What are you going to tell my parents?”

“Well,” I’d say, “If you do what you need to do during … nevermind. I’m gonna tell them you’re failing!”
“I’m not!”
Well, OK, then.

I love the long-ish day, starting out with warm feedback, flaunting my Spanish skills, and listening as I get insight for how parents talk to their children. I do wince when children get in trouble, but I smile when parents of my more successful students say, “Yeah, but we still got a ways to go.” I see you. I love telling parents how I’m working with them and their students to make sure they’re learning because they need to hear that.

Even when it looks opaque, I like to leave on a positive note. Teaching is tough, but parenting is harrowing.

On Thursday, for example, a parent informed me that she heard through the grapevine that little to no learning was taking place in my classroom. I hadn’t heard anything like that in my 12 years of teaching, so my face must have contorted some. Plus, her student had just earned a 90 on his report card. Her son then explained that it came from a parent whose student wasn’t doing well in my class. My first inclination was to defend my work. My second inclination was to pepper my student with questions about what we do in my class.

But, before I could even gather my thoughts, the parent said, “Well, I know you’re doing good work because my son actually likes math now and says good things about you.”

Well, alright. It gave me little relief, but it was enough for me to take time and reflect on this idea. When I first started teaching more than a decade ago, my elders would say, “If you’ve taught just one child, you’ve done a good job.” I understood the sentiment, but, because I’m stubborn, I’d wait until they left and said, “Hell nah!” I want to teach all the students. I need to get better at reaching all of the people. If I had a bad year, I’d sit there on the last day and say, “OK, how can I do that better?” If I had a great year, I’d sit there on the last day and say, “OK, how can I do that better?” I defy my own legacy constantly, but don’t stray too much from what makes my teaching part of me.

But, if I teach and the students don’t learn, did I really teach?

Sure, I went through the actions. I thought about the content. I developed the warm-up activity. I went through the motions of introducing the idea. I created questions for students to respond to and asked them at appropriate intervals. I prepared work for them to get practice within their groups and individually. I created a quiz aligned to everything I just said. Does any of it matter if I don’t have some way of determining that my signals reached them?

I want to say yes, but a deeper part of me can’t settle.

Which brings me back to the parent who gossiped to the other parents about what happens in my classroom. As a parent and teacher, I have two lenses both critical and understanding of the roles involved in our educational ecosystem. We should ask tough questions of each other and we should have ways of developing feedback for each other. Instead of discussing “bad” parents, “bad” students, and “bad” teachers, I prefer to discuss next steps that will make sure students get what they need. Perhaps I’m not the one to deliver that need, but I’ve found closure with the idea that not every student will learn with me.

Because I have more immediate control than a tree does, I’m hoping to change this observable reality with parents and students involved. We can’t let our students fall. Do we?