A Numbers Game?

When I was thirteen I was told by my teachers that I was no good at Music or Art and that it would be a waste of my time to continue with them as subjects in school. I still feel angry about that. Over thirty years later. I may have failed the exam so they couldn’t take a chance. I was just a number.

In his documentary film, ‘The Hobart Shakespeareans’, Rafe Esquith, a US Teacher of the Year, describes teaching as a numbers game. He says, and I paraphrase, that one third of any class will always get what you’re trying to do, one third will never get what you’re trying to do, but it is the third in the middle which will make and break your class. If you can sway those towards your side, then the other third will become a quiet minority and perhaps let the rest get on with it.

I will confess that I have passed this story on to the student teachers I mentor each year because, while lacking in subtlety, I’ve always thought that it contained a certain amount of truth. As time passes, however, I’m not at all sure.

The end of term and arrival of a long summer holiday is always greeted with relief but there is also, for me, a time of reflection; reflection on the failures as well as the successes. It pains me to see too many on the failure list. That most of those failures will be in the third who never get what I’m trying to do is a feeble and pathetic argument. It is too easy to accept that some kids will never improve. It is too easy to dismiss and compartmentalize like this. But I teach in a school in which eighteen hundred students turn up every day. I have five classes a day in which thirty students sit and expect to be taught English. It is a failure on my part if they fail.

I read about some wonderful things happening in schools. I read about one-to-one ipad projects. I read about multi-platform blogging projects and students who are ‘Skypeing’ around the world. I read about amazing classrooms doing amazing things. And I begin to resent them. I see video of classes of ten, fifteen, even twenty doing wonderful things with technology and I can’t help but resent them. I know that’s awful. But when I stand in front of classes of thirty kids without so much as a single computer – and even when we do get access they are little more than word processors, so much content is blocked – I cannot help but feel that something is unfair, something is wrong.

It would be too easy for me to glibly accept that this is always the way and I should just get on with it; too easy to accept that, yes, a third of our kids will never get what we are trying to do; will never get what they need out of education. However, if I accept that, if we as a society accept that some kids can be left out so comfortably then I am not only accepting a divided society I am contributing to it.

I’ve always been of the mind that you control what you can and let the rest go. What I can control is my expectations for the kids in front of me. These kids won’t get any where near realising their potential if my expectations are not always very high. I won’t realise my potential as a teacher for the same reason.

It seems that those in our schools who need most get least. I hate myself for resenting the resources of others. Of course I shouldn’t. But I see the potential in some of the kids I teach and resent the fact that they can’t have what they need. I’ve never seriously attempted any musical instrument in my life, never picked up a paint brush. Who knows the damage we are doing to this generation?

Check out The Hobart Shakespeareans here

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