30 before 30: The most empowering thing you can do is the thing you think you can’t do

Intelligence is malleable. You do not have an innate, fixed level of intelligence. You can make yourself smarter. You’re not born good at math or good at writing or good at science. You can make yourself good at any of these things. You just have to work hard and believe in yourself.

As a young teacher, I was told to impress these ideas upon my students, and I understand why. Expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies, and for kids to be successful at school, it is crucial for them to believe that they can.

But do we, as teachers, live out these ideas in our own lives? I don’t think we do. And I think that’s problematic, because kids learn by example more than anything else.

See, we think we buy into the idea that anyone can be successful through hard work and persistence and believing in oneself, as we repeat that mantra over and over to our students. But we’re forgetting that many of us, as teachers, have always been more or less “good” at school. We’ve never really struggled to believe that academic success is attainable to anyone through effort, sticking with it, and never giving up. But when it comes to other things, outside of academics, we all absolutely do buy into the idea that there are certain things we just inherently can’t do.

For some of us, that’s art. I can’t draw. I can barely draw stick figures! I’m not artistic.

For others, it’s foreign languages. Never been my thing.

Or music. I sing in the shower, but that’s it, and just be glad you’re not around to hear that!

Or sports. I’m slow and clumsy.

We tell our students they can be successful in math class if they work hard enough and believe in themselves, then turn around and tell our adult friends that we can’t draw or swimming’s just not our thing or we just don’t have the such and such talent or we’re just not made for blah blah blah.

For me, that thing was running. For most of my life, I firmly believed I was incapable of running more than a mile without stopping. Shaking that mindset in my twenties and running my first 5k was one of the most exciting, freeing, and empowering things I’ve ever done, and a few weeks ago, I ran my first half marathon.

So here’s my challenge for my fellow teachers: Identify one of those things you always casually say you “can’t” do, and resolve to do it. Not only will you get a huge confidence boost when you soar past your own self-imposed limits, but you just might be able to inspire a few reluctant students.

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What I’d Strike For

I have a huge amount of respect for the Moroccan students and professors with whom I had the privilege of working last year. My colleagues were incredibly kind, knowledgable, and welcoming. They insisted that I join them at their gatherings at cafes after work, and even invited me into their homes to share dinner and meet their spouses and children. Although I was much younger than my colleagues and the only foreign teacher in the department, they made me feel like I was a full member of the faculty. I taught many bright, hardworking, passionate and motivated young people. I learned a lot about Moroccan culture from my students’ presentations, debates, and essays. They shared all kinds of thoughtful insights in our class discussions. They showed me around. I sometimes ended up in a taxi with a few of my students after class, and the twenty-minute taxi ride would turn into a lively conversation. I still keep in touch with some of my students and I have wonderful memories of teaching them English.

Now that I’m back in the U.S., teaching high school English Language Development, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences teaching in Morocco and America. One thing in particular stands out to me- a common issue in Moroccan public universities as well as many American public schools. Let me start with an incident that happened at my university in Morocco about halfway through the school year.

On December 25, 2014, I bought some baghrir with jbn for breakfast and jumped into a taxi for the 20 minute ride from the town where I lived to the smaller seaside college town where I taught. I got out at the university and hurried through the gate, dry erase marker and folder full of photocopies in hand. But it was not going to be a normal day. A crowd of students was milling about outside the huge main building, talking quietly and looking at the door. The door was barricaded with boards and what looked like part of an old table and a few students stood just in front of it, guarding the entrance.

One of my colleagues, an older Moroccan gentleman who spoke English in a flawless British accent, walked toward me on his way out. He did not look happy.

“No classes today?” I asked.

“No… Actually you’d better go,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

I wasn’t sorry. It was Christmas morning and some Fulbright friends were gathering in Fez to cook a meal together and exchange gifts and I had been a little sore about having to work. What perfect timing for a strike! I went straight to the bus station in Tetouan, bought a ticket to Fez, and soon I was on a bus winding through the Rif mountains, ETA six hours from now, destination Christmas.

The protesting students had been building up to that strike for nearly a month. They had spent three weeks parading around campus, chanting, and gathering around to hear an older student give speeches full of fiery passion for change. During the second week of December, they took it up a notch. They brought the slow marching and chanting into the buildings, stopping outside each classroom door. I was talking about The Great Gatsby when they got to my door. There was a loud knock, then the door swung open and the student who was always giving angry speeches in various corners of campus (my colleagues had identified him as the head of the student union) walked in.

“May I speak to your students for a moment?” he asked me very politely.

“Of course,” I said. I’d been warned not to interfere with strikes. “It’s not your strike. Stay out of it,” my program director had said.

The minute I gave permission, the student union rep turned to my students and launched into a tirade in rapid-fire Darija of which I understood the following:

“There is a big problem… problem… this university… There are many problems… classes… exams… scholarships… problem… the scholarships… exams… dates… exams… This is a big problem… professors… university… scholarships… exams… problem… problem… problem…”

Then he walked out as suddenly as he had walked in. “All classes are dismissed. Go home,” he said on his way out the door.

“Well everyone, have a nice vacation!” I laughed.

“We don’t actually have to leave,” they said. “You can keep teaching.”

“Yeah, they mostly just want to make their point. We can stay in class, it’s fine.”

But I remembered what my Fulbright director had said, and an anecdote about a guy in my program a few years back who’d gotten into an altercation with the strikers because he’d refused to stop teaching, and I insisted that they take a day off.

This pattern continued for the rest of the week. My students would show up with their notebooks and pens, ready to learn, I’d get about halfway through a lecture, and the chanting would grow louder and louder until it was right outside the door and then the leader of the protestors would come in, give his speech, and that was it for the day.

And then, for three mornings, the doors were barricaded and guarded and classes did not meet at all.

I never understood exactly what that strike was about. It had something to do with the government promising scholarships and not delivering. It had something to do with the final exam schedule. Tests scheduled too close together with no time to prepare, I think. Every university system has its problems. In the U.S., we have our sky-high tuition costs and staggering student debt.

The thing is, I would protest too, if I were a student in Morocco. And this is what I would say:

Hire more professors. Lower the student-faculty ratio. Give us regular feedback on our work, not just a cryptic number between one and twenty once or twice a semester. Give us teaching assistants who can work with us in small groups. Help us improve. Make us feel like our professors and teaching assistants notice us and want to help us learn.

Unfortunately, those things cost money.

I was supposed to be a teaching assistant. But since the Moroccan public university system is overcrowded and underfunded, I found myself automatically promoted to “stand-alone professor with five hundred students and no teaching assistants.” That’s right, the Eager-But-Highly-Underqualified-For-This-Job Me stood up there and taught five big lecture halls full of college students and graded everything myself.

My colleagues told me I didn’t have to give my students individual feedback on their work. I didn’t have to show them their graded tests. All I had to do was administer a final exam and maybe also a midterm (optional) and post their grades, on a scale of 1 to 20, on the wall. Well more like from 1 to 16, because, as they say, 20 is for Allah and 19 is for His Majesty the King, as in these grades are very very very rarely given out because no one is perfect. (I did give out one 19… for a student who’d lived most of her life in Canada and spoke better English than I did.)

It goes against all my principles as an educator to give students a number at the end of the semester and nothing more. How can students improve if they don’t get regular and specific comments on their work so they know exactly what to fix to do better in the future?

Some of my colleagues took pains to give their students feedback on their work. Some didn’t, but I don’t judge them. They’re not bad teachers. The system is against them. How can you possibly give regular individual feedback to five hundred students? You can’t. You just can’t. I tried to and I did my best, commenting on homework on long bus and train rides. I held office hours. I think I did as well as I could have under the circumstances. But my students should have had smaller classes, or at least teaching assistants who could meet with them outside of lectures, once or twice a week, in small groups of ten or twenty. They should have had more individual attention from instructors. They deserved that. And I and my colleagues should not have been responsible for such a whopping number of students.

This issue of class size is not unique to Morocco. It’s an American problem too, at the K-12 level. I taught at a large urban public high school for three years. I taught Algebra and Geometry to English Language Learners, many of whom were refugees or unaccompanied minors with trauma history, some of whom had just arrived in the U.S. and spoke no English, most of whom came into my class at about a fourth grade math level or even less. In that type of setting, there should be no more than fifteen students per class. In some of my classrooms I had nearly thirty. Thirty kids at vastly varying math and English levels with lots of major stuff going on outside of school, who all needed lots of individualized instruction and attention. It wasn’t impossible, but I struggled and burnt myself out and after three years I just couldn’t do it anymore.

At my current school in the U.S., I teach a small group of ninth grade English Language Learners. I have eight students. Eight. I differentiate my curriculum for each individual kid’s specific needs. I am intensely aware of each student’s specific level, strengths and weaknesses, and learning styles. I can do this because I have such a small number of students. Earlier this year, I realized that several of the ninth graders at my school had major gaps in their math backgrounds. In response, I taught a basic arithmetic and number sense intervention class to four students for two months. In two months, the four of them brought their grades in their Algebra class up to passing. They went from adding on their fingers at the beginning of those two months to being able to correctly solve at least 48 out of 50 mixed addition, subtraction, multiplication and division problems in three minutes. This did not happen because I’m some genius teacher or anything. It happened because I had four students in the class. I know such a small teacher-student ratio is too good to be true in most districts. But class size makes a huge, huge, major difference. It really, really does.

So, there you go, that’s what I’d strike for if I were a student at a Moroccan public university. Maybe also if I were a student at an American public high school in an overcrowded, underfunded, high needs district. Students deserve attention, individualized instruction, and lots of feedback. Worldwide.