Energy In

I’ve often heard of praise for teachers who work tirelessly to help that one student who is having trouble. The teacher puts in the hard work over a long stretch of time, and eventually reaps the rewards when the student finally catches on to the content being taught in class. This teacher is then lauded as a great person for investing all that time into a student who needed help.

I have nothing against this. The fact that the teacher wants to help a student who is facing difficulties is amazing, but the question that I ask after hearing a story like this is: how do you choose?

After all, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that more than one student will need help. At that point, how is one supposed to prioritize? Is it a measure of how much a person needs the help? This could arguably be the case, but how is one supposed to measure this characteristic? One can quickly see how this can become problematic.

There is no perfect solution to this problem that is also realistic, which means there are only compromises. Therefore, I would submit the following as a strategy: invest your energy in equal amount to the energy that the student invests in.

Before I go on, I want to strongly note that this is useful when teaching students who are past the secondary level. It’s not a question anymore of enticing the student to even want to be there. If they are in the class, it means they are at least somewhat interested in understanding the content in order to pass the course and graduate.

The strategy is simple. If a student is interested in learning and wants to succeed, than your job as a teacher is to reciprocate and provide for them in equal amounts. If the student behaves as if they don’t want to be there, then you don’t need to go out of your way to do more for them. I’m definitely not saying to ignore them, but to not necessarily do too much.

This sounds exceptionally harsh, but here is the rationale: we all have a finite amount of energy that we can spread during our teaching. Furthermore, there are too many students that must be taught in order for all of them to be given over-the-top education. (This is like saying you want every student in the world to receive an above-average education. It’s just not possible.) As such, I see two possible options: treat everyone equally all the time, or give more to those who want more.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the first option. However, I find it limiting for those students who want to learn. Is it honestly fair to have students who don’t care about learning mathematics getting the same amount of time as those who do want to learn? In my eyes, it would be ridiculous if I had to limit my time with someone who wanted to learn to go and work with someone who expressly doesn’t want to learn.

Another thing I want to make clear: showing interest in learning does not necessarily imply being good at the subject. Yes, they can exist together, but a student can be terrible at a subject and still want to learn. That’s the kind of student you want to see in an ideal world (the one who constantly wants to learn more).

I realize that this idea may not be well received, and I’m certainly open to having my mind changed (in fact, I welcome it), but at the moment these look like the two options to me. And I cannot see how the first option makes more sense than the second. By putting the same amount of energy in as the student does, both parties are energized to do good work together.

I got this idea from the great coaches on the Magness and Marcus podcast. While they mainly deal with track and field, I find these coaching and education principles apply here as well. The idea of putting equal energy in as the student is brought up in context with the athlete.

However, there is also a counterbalance to this idea. As they bring up in the podcast, a good coach does not necessarily mean you have one amazing athlete and have them define your career. They argue that a good coach does a lot over a large proportion. I believe this should also be the goal as well. Therefore, I don’t think the attention should only go to a student who is motivated and engaged (or at least, more than the rest). If the whole class is interested and engaged, then all of them should receive your attention. In fact, the more students the better.

In the end, I think our job as teachers is to amplify those who do good work and want to learn, but it’s also to produce a lot of quality students. Don’t become enamoured by having one amazing student at the expense of many.

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