Focusing on That Which One Can Influence

Julia Steiny presents some thoughts on how to hire great teachers, and this point caught my eye:

[Delia Stafford, CEO of the Haberman Educational Foundation] adds that an interviewee might answer a question with: “‘What do they expect of me? The parents don’t show up and the kids don’t bring homework.’ If they tell us that kids are at risk because so many parents are not doing their jobs and the students aren’t interested, they aren’t going to work out. Some list everything outside of the classroom: ‘The curriculum doesn’t fit; we test them too much.’ On the other hand, another person might say, ‘I would never punish kids because their parents didn’t show up.’ These are basic, core beliefs.”

Of course, such an attitude during a job interview shows extremely poor judgment, in the first place, not the least because it assumes shared group-think with the interviewers. Putting that aside, though, the lesson is certainly not exclusive to teachers: We can only change that which we have the power to control.
A person hired to do a job should see obstacles as problems to be addressed, not preemptive excuses. Homework, for example, has a purpose. If it isn’t getting done, then that purpose isn’t being achieved. A teacher must either figure out a way to motivate a particular student to do the homework or find some alternative method that achieves the underlying goal of the homework.
The strategies could be very broad, such as changes to school policies and culture, but they’re likely to be very specific to the student and the situation. As Stafford suggests, the important things are the core beliefs — the basic understanding of role and approaches to problem solving.

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jparis
jparis
11 years ago

I’m very interested in the case of homework… what do you think it is intended to achieve, and what other teaching methods might accomplish those same goals?
Perhaps one of the reasons teachers have such a ubiquitous problem with educating students who have poor home environments is that homework is such a critical component of their curricula.
Personally, I use homework to encourage students to synthesize materials they took notes on, or engaged in group activities with in the classroom. It separates learning from the classroom as the ONLY location learning can take place… a very important concept later in life when one must take it upon one’s self to learn new job skills in the face of changing times.
I do this even in computer lab classes, where student have time inside the classroom to work on their own with my 1-on-1 advice and guidance as needed. Still, sometimes it’s best to let students “work without a net” for a little while, so they can come back with new questions for the teacher. That’s hard to do if they are worried about whether or not there will be dinner on the table that night.
From an interview perspective, I agree with you, excuses are never a good idea. However, from the overall perspective of closing the education gap between students in “good stable households” and those who don’t have such luxuries, I think supervised homework will always have a place.
Mentors, big-brothers/big-sisters, community centers, free after-school tutors… all of these can help mitigate the issue. The old saying goes, “it takes a village”… I simply don’t believe teachers can go it alone.

Russ
Russ
11 years ago

“We can only change that which we have the power to control.”
Ah, you’re so close to the truth here and yet you can’t help but continuing in the near religious belief held by so many that it’s possible to assign individual responsibility to systemic problems.
#7 of Deming’s Lesser Category of Obstacles: Placing blames on workforces who only responsible for 15% of mistake where the system desired by management is responsible for 85% of the unintended consequences.

msteven
msteven
11 years ago

Justin, do you believe that teachers should be held responsible for students completing their homework and for their behavior in class?
As a former teacher, I strongly believe that educators should educate. It is the student and their family’s responsibility to make sure assignments get completed. Teachers should not be responsible for student cooperation and behavior.
This seems like a role reversal. I’d figure Justin to be on the side of individual/parental responsibility instead of handing the responsibility of a student’s success/failure to the public education system. Isn’t that sort of a big government worldview?

Justin Katz
11 years ago

jparis,
I imagine the purpose of homework assignments varies to some degree from subject to subject and assignment to assignment. The point is that a teacher’s job is to educate students to the best of his or her ability, and external factors don’t negate tha responsibility.
If I’m building a house for you, you don’t need to know what a particular column is supporting to be concerned if I decide to place it on unstable ground beneath. It would be my job, as a carpenter, to resolve the issue, by reconfiguring the framing or pointing the way toward resolution of the structural problems. I can’t simply put in the column as planned and walk away as if I’ve done my job.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

msteven,
Just so: It is the job of educators to educate, not to go through a series of motions that some book or old professor has designated as “educating.” Teachers should absolutely be responsible for student cooperation and behavior to the extent that they see it as their job to work with students whom they’re given. That doesn’t mean that any teacher who doesn’t teach every student every concept on some Washington DC summary sheet is a failure. (“Every student must succeed” is another way of saying “We’re going to take more of your money to pursue an impossible goal.”)
But you’re mixing categories. Parents and the students themselves have ultimate responsibility for their success, but teachers and the education system have responsibility for getting as much out of the students as possible, given their individual potential.
If the system and the teacher have no responsibility, why do we pay so much for it all? Instead, give every kid a laptop and some textbooks and tell them to go at it.

msteven
msteven
11 years ago

“It is the job of educators to educate, not to go through a series of motions that some book or old professor has designated as “educating.”
—- Really? What is your point here? That some teachers just go through the motions as opposed to actually working hard to educate their students? Stop the presses. Well that certainly never happens anywhere else – even in the private world.
I never said that the system and teacher had NO responsibility. You came much closer to saying that they had total responsibility. Both extremes are absurd. Teachers have a job to do. But a job where the product is not tangible is different than other ‘project’ related jobs.
I suspect your view has more to do with ‘public’ than it does with ‘education’. There are some parents who pay for their kid private education and therefore expect the school to ‘do whatever it takes’ to give their child a good education. Is that fair?
The mantra “every student must succeed” is silly. So is “no child left behind”. You are a conservative and to me, that means you believe people should be given opportunity IN CONJUNCTION with taking responsibility. Teachers and school systems should be held accountable for the opportunity part.
I take your comments to say that you believe that students are ENTITLED to a good education irregardless of what they put into it, and if they do not get one it must be the fault of the system. Teachers have a difficult enough job without having to be responsible for what their students are doing when not in school. That is someone else’s responsibility.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Sometimes, it seems that you read things as you want to read them. The original post as about teachers in job interviews not offering “what can we do” as an excuse. As far as I can tell, you didn’t even read the bulk of my response to you. Students are entitled to teachers who will do everything they can think to do to reach them. When school committees and administrations are hiring, they should look for teachers for whom “everything I can think of” is as broad as possible (and for the prices that we pay for their services, their repertoires had better be very broad). If my children do poorly in school, my first thought would be that I could do something more to help them and am perhaps not doing something right to begin with. If I were a teacher and my students were doing poorly, my first thought would be that I could do something more to help them and was perhaps not doing something right to begin with. If I were an administrator and my students were doing poorly, my first thought would be that I could do something more to help them and was perhaps not doing something right to begin with. As a parent, it may be that I’ll from time to time have to press my children’s teachers for targeted assistance or even supplement their inadequate lessons. As a teacher, it might be that I’d have to seek ways to compensate for inadequate parenting or to help the parents develop. As an administrator, it might be that I’d have to find ways to get more cooperation, efficiency, and effort out of teachers or replace them. At no point in the chain is “what can I do?” a valid excuse. And the “public” is… Read more »

msteven
msteven
11 years ago

How ironic is that my initial response to you is similar to “… reading what you want to read”. I probably should have added that I totally agree with your post that the interview response was extremely poor judgment. But that didn’t seem to be your main point. Your point was that there are no excuses when it comes to the job of educating. Nice rhetoric but you fail to define what that means. Does it mean there are no excuses when certain students don’t pass tests? Don’t hand in assignments? don’t behave? Are those the obstacles that need to be addressed by the teachers & school system? There are simple solutions – no assignments, no tests and ignore bad behavior. Everyone gets an A for effort. Then students are ‘educated’ – proof is right there on the report card! Problem solved. FYI – people in the private world (business executives, lawyers, entertainers, etc.) also got paid even when the results “failed”. Maybe you should advocate that lawyers only get paid when they win their case, doctors get paid only when they heal the patient and no one in the financial industry should have gotten paid during the recession. Good idea? It is consistent with your ‘pay for results’ view. But my guess is that only applies to certain areas – i.e.: where unions exist. In the vast majority, the issue is that SOME students do well and SOME do not. You want to point the finger at the ‘system’ for failing those students not doing well. So it’s the responsibility of government to solve everyone’s problems. Well, just education. Well, just public education. As in sports, success is more about the players than the coaches. Except that in professional sports, teams can choose their players while public schools cannot.… Read more »

Justin Katz
11 years ago

Once again, msteven, you insert “main points” that aren’t accurate and use your strawman as a springboard into sermonizing about your own even keel. Where did I say anything remotely similar to: “there are no excuses when it comes to the job of educating”?

msteven
msteven
11 years ago

You have to be kidding, I didn’t build the strawman, you did.
I’ll start with this:
“If it isn’t getting done, then that purpose isn’t being achieved. A teacher must either figure out a way to motivate a particular student to do the homework or find some alternative method that achieves the underlying goal of the homework.”
This:
“The strategies could be very broad, such as changes to school policies and culture, but they’re likely to be very specific to the student and the situation.”
— I’d love to hear your changes to school policy and culture which will motivate students to complete their homework.
This:
“The original post as about teachers in job interviews not offering “what can we do” as an excuse.”
This:
“Students are entitled to teachers who will do everything they can think to do to reach them. When school committees and administrations are hiring, they should look for teachers for whom “everything I can think of” is as broad as possible (and for the prices that we pay for their services, their repertoires had better be very broad).”
And this:
“At no point in the chain is “what can I do?” a valid excuse.
My point that this is about your political agenda against public schools. You never did address the fact that I mention your exclusion of responsibility in private institutions. This is only about public education, isn’t it?

Justin Katz
11 years ago

You’re just wrong. None of what you quote amounts to “there are no excuses when it comes to the job of educating.” You completely ignore all of my statements with respect to administrations and parents and so on. Each have a role to play, and the typical excuses are not valid. They are reasons to reevaluate what’s being done.
And there’s no reason for you to assume that my statements do not apply to private schools… or even private businesses. A good employee doesn’t trade in excuses. Explanations perhaps, but excuses imply an impossibility of improvement directed by the person making them.
Perhaps the problem is that you’re flipping the subject and object of “excuse.” When a person makes excuses for themselves, he or she is throwing up hands and declaring the task impossible. When those with some authority over an employee insist that there are “no excuses,” it means that the employee must succeed fully… or else. I explicitly stated that I don’t mean the latter.

msteven
msteven
11 years ago

You’re just backing off your original post and subsequent comments.
Using the homework example, if a student routinely doesn’t complete their homework. I believe that the teacher has the responsibility to inform the student and the parent. If that hasn’t helped, what would you expect them to do? Does that constitude ‘throwing up their arms’ and making excuses for the student’s poor grade?
I pretty much agree with your latest comment but feel it is different than your others. You said it best by making the distinction between excuses and explanations.
I’d say where we disagree is that I believe that the quality of education cannot be easily quantifed – not by test scores or students grades. That is my opinion and why I disagree with the blaming the teacher/school for poor student results. I think the school’s responsibility for student performance is equal to their responsibility for teaching them morality.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

I backed off nothing. I identified where language was getting in the way between us and clarified. To rephrase: I wouldn’t say that there “are no excuses” in education, but I would say that there “should be no making excuses.” There’s always something that can be done, which means there’s always something that should be done.
It may not be enough soon enough for a particular student, and that’s to be expected, but to say that the problem is that students don’t pay attention, parents don’t care, and so on is to say that there’s no reason to be spending so much of the public’s limited resources on teachers.

msteven
msteven
11 years ago

You did, but you went back here.
And you are being vague. For instance, what specifically are you referring to that ‘excuses’ are made for? A student getting good grades? Is that the product/service schools provide in your view? Maybe our disagreement is about the role of teachers? What is their job in your view?
Anyways, are you saying that a student’s not paying attention or that parents don’t care should or should not be part of the equation in judging schools/teachers – and how big a part?
But then you make your point about the public spending money its’ limited resources – and this is where you are just wrong. It’s the same logic as people who blame the Bush Administration for spending so much of the public’s limited resources on the war and other things. Or spending money on ‘victimless’ crimes like drugs or prostitution. And then I can go back to pointing out that this occurs regardless of who is paying the bill – taxpayers or private individual.
Which leads to – what are your really criticizing? That education is publicly funded? Or that there is ‘always something more’ a teacher can do to educate a student – even an uncooperative one. Maybe there is – my view would be that teachers should focus their time and effort on the students that do cooperate. Otherwise, the students who do cooperate and want to learn are being punished. But then again, my focus of this debate is on education as opposed to pubic money.

Justin Katz
11 years ago

I’m finding communication very difficult with you, and I’ve just got too much to do to try to unravel the assumptions you’re making about what I’m saying.

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