When model students become the teachers…

Were you the kind of high school student who always did your homework? Who always studied for tests? Who came to class prepared?

Or were you kind who procrastinated? Who scraped by on what you could pick up in class? Who was too busy or distracted to pick up a book or notebook at home?

. . .

A few weeks ago, at the AP Micro/Macro reading in Cincinnati, I helped lead a professional development session for about a hundred colleagues from around the nation.

My co-leader, Dave, and I wanted to get the teachers — all thoughtful, effective AP Econ teachers — to think about ways to incorporate more non-lecture teaching strategies in their classrooms.

We started by dividing them into groups based on study habits — by asking them the same questions listed above.

We had four groups: the relentless workers, the consistent workers, the semi-slackers, and the group who seldom, if ever, did work outside of class.

Guess what?

About 80 percent of teachers sorted themselves into the relentless or consistent groups. An additional 15 percent were semi-slackers. I could count on my hands the number of teachers who said (claimed?admitted?) they rarely did homework in high school.

. . .

Surfacing teachers’ own work habits wasn’t the point of this exercise — it was to demonstrate how I group students for collaborative learning in AP Macro (capitalizing on research about effective groups) — but it was a good reminder of who we teachers are, and who we are not.

Too many of us were model students in our day. Too many of us grew up following the rules, showing up on time, doing our homework, caring about our grades. We probably followed the dress code too, and came home by curfew.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being a model student. Of course not.

But it makes it much harder for us to relate to our own students, who are often anything but. It sets up a huge culture clash and a lot of frustration. I teach in a high-achieving public high school, but I teach AP Macro to freshmen, and many of them (about ⅓ to ½) come in with zero study habits.

They happily admit on my google survey that they won’t watch instructional videos; they don’t read the textbook; and they’re not likely to come to class prepared. In groups, they tell me, they like to let other people carry the load.

Part of our job is to teach these students good study habits, so they leave our classrooms better prepared to be learners. But we also need to teach the students we have, and that means building a classroom that supports learning, even for these students who show up unprepared.

We need to understand them and design strategies that will engage them, not just berate them or blame them.

A key concept in social psychology is the “fundamental attribution error” — the idea that we often attribute other people’s behavior, especially when it’s bad, to poor character, and ignore situational causes.

Unfortunately, this can lead teachers to assume that students who don’t behave the way we did are lazy, that they don’t care about their futures, that they are irresponsible — ignoring that they might be anxious, exhausted, hungry, immature, or just bored (to name a few). That can lead us to have lower expectations for them, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In short, we have to realize that not all students are like us, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be successful learners and successful adults. That handful of teachers in the corner who admitted they didn’t study? They’re great teachers and some of my best friends.

Tomorrow, I’m going to try this same experiment with Minnesota high school administrators during a few sessions at their summer conference. What do you think will happen?

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author, speaker and College Board consultant. She is also Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

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