The student’s performance is not the teacher’s “work”

A common but serious error in teaching, particularly in the teaching of the arts, is to confuse students’ performances with demonstrations of their teachers’ prowess. Our educational system increasingly makes this equation to the point that teachers’ reappointments are frequently tied to their students’ ability to perform on “standardized” tests. Even without this “incentive,” it’s natural enough for teachers to identify with their students and for teachers to be held responsible for their student’s learning.

Though it’s fair to say that the teacher’s ability to instruct is to some degree reflected in their students ability to perform, the two are not at all identical. Some students fail to learn in spite of ardent work by dedicated teachers; other students learn despite their teachers’ incompetence, indifference, or even outright hostility.

We are accustomed to evaluating people on the work of others. Bosses are evaluated on the work of their employees; coaches are honored or defiled on the success of their teams. Many parents see themselves as judged for “how their kids turned out.” Some of this sense of responsibility for others’ achievements has benefits, stimulating a leader, employer, coach or parent to encourage the best from their charges. But there are serious dangers as well. There is something fundamentally wrong with seeing students’ work as evidence of their teachers’ prowess.

In extreme examples, it’s easy to see the damage that can be done by a teacher viewing the student as nothing more than the reification of the teacher’s own aspirations. The Pygmalion myth, re-imagined by George Bernard Shaw or set to music in My Fair Lady, is a simple cautionary tale of the hubris of trying to transform something or someone else into a manifestation of one’s own genius.

But a teacher does not have to aspire to turn rough clay to human flesh in order to damage the student’s development. In innumerable instances I’ve witnessed teachers who undermine their students’ growth because of fear that the students’ difficulties will reflect poorly on themselves. I have seen teachers who demand that their students leap far beyond their realistic capacities and then become frustrated and angry when the students “fail” to achieve a goal that would make their teacher look brilliant.

The moment the teacher’s narcissistic and, to some extent, practical need, given societal incentives and disincentives, to have their students perform well in order to make their teacher look good, the student is lost. The focus is no longer on the students’ growth, the students’ hopes and fears, on their weaknesses and their personal struggle to overcome them, but on the teachers’ needs to look good in front of their peers, superiors, and the students’ friends and relations.

One myth about the teaching of creativity might be called, the “impossible challenge.” The image is of a violin student of centuries past coming to a great master in search of lessons. The master observes the student for a moment, then abruptly turns and shouts, “you’re holding the bow completely wrong. You’ll never learn to play the violin. It would be better if you smashed it to bits!” In the Hollywood movie version, the student confronts this challenge, devotes all energies to the proper holding of the bow, and returns to astonish the teacher with incomparable virtuosity. The myth is a lie. For every student who is inspired to heights of brilliance by cruelly demanding teachers, a hundred simply fade into non-existence. Nor is this something of the past: A disturbing plethora of current teachers justify their own frustrations and ill temper as being fundamental teaching methodology. The student must learn from the teacher’s disdain and scorn. Many simply give up.

What is painfully lost in this process is the student’s own internal motivation to learn. A student does not need to be brilliant in order to value learning, to need to grow intellectually, to express oneself creatively. No where is this more evident than in the branding of students based on their previous records. The so-called “A student” is far more often given tender attention than the so-called “C student.” This is usually masked as respect for the student’s accomplishment, but actually has more to do with the fact that the “A student” makes the teacher look good while the “C student” makes the teacher seem less effective. Far too often, the teacher simply gives up on the student who does not immediately excel. Is it surprising, then, that these students frequently give up on themselves?

Students who “fall behind the curve” are likely to be confronted with dysphoric moods that further undermine any hope of their learning the material. Teachers get angry at their students’ limitations rather than getting creative about figuring out, with the positive excitement that is the greatest inducement to learn, how to overcome the difficulties. In this state of misdirected anger, open or suppressed, teachers demand things their students cannot accomplish and then are frustrated and irritated when students cannot achieve what “would make their teachers proud.”

The devastating impact is that many students lose heart. Their teachers’ frustration becomes evidence that they, the students, should not have tried in the first place, that what they are trying to learn is so far beyond their capacity that they should not attempt it. The tragic result is that whole realms of curiosity, creativity, exploration, and understanding are shunted aside, or, if not completely given up, tainted with an enduring sense of inadequacy.

Before closing this essay, it’s necessary to reflect on what is superficially the opposite of the problem discussed here, but in fact is simply the other side of the same coin. I refer to teachers who praise everything their students do, regardless of the quality of their work. There are those who exhibit Carl Rogers’ famous “unconditional positive regard” as though it were a magic ingredient that instantly catalyzes students’ learning capacities. A teacher who praises everything every student does is clearly a phony and the students either know it, or will soon find out when confronted with anyone who views their work at all objectively.

What students need is not to be told that everything they do is wonderful. If so, why bother taking on the arduous work of becoming honestly adept? Treating every attempt at learning as equally valid is as meaningless and undermining of the learning process as criticizing everything the student tries to do.

The teacher’s task is neither to cut students down so low that they are forced to discover hidden resources deep in their soul nor to elevate them falsely into the illusion that they are miraculous geniuses. It is to be a partner in the challenge of going from where they currently are in the learning process up the next rung of a ladder that goes as far as they are willing to continue climbing. It is to help them past their most frustrating limitations in order to achieve the satisfaction of real learning. Both unbridled contempt and unjustified exuberance are self-indulgent. They have nothing positive to do with the learning process.

What is needed is friendly, yet honest appraisal combined with belief in the students’ capacity to learn and a commitment to work with them overcome their most significant limitations. Easy enough to say, but difficult to accomplish. The process is usually uneven with long plateaus where progress isn’t immediately obvious. On the students’ side, there is an parallel need for hard work and commitment to maintaining momentum in the face of frustrations.

Students’ ability to show what they have learned may not make the teacher look particularly brilliant, but it is the satisfaction of the collaborative effort that marks the truly effective teacher-student relationship.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning