Going into my third week as the alternative school science teacher, and the novelty has worn off, I guess, for all of us. As much as I wanted to hang on to the fresh, all options on the table, all ideals realizable, free from judgment point of view, reality has hit. Not that I am giving up, just having to work through a little lowness of spirits. It will take more strength of will and adherence to principle to maintain my idealism, and I do intend to try. Ideals such as conveying the message to every student, every day, I am on your side. And, along with that, that as long as you stick with me in this class, you have to let me lead it. Certain students are watching and quietly rooting for that leadership, as two or three continue to demand I do things differently and complain when things are difficult or unfamiliar.
It’s now time to call out those students who are stressing out the others, and also to begin a more formal attempt to train them in how to time and phrase criticism and appeals, and how to filter out those arising from mere impatience, ego, and fear. I picture a conversation which includes reminding these students that I have been hired to teach everyone and they do not have the right to constantly interrupt, nor should they assume that their concerns or problems are shared by everyone. I want to affirm that they have the right to their feelings, but not the right to express them in any way that they choose or at any time they choose. That said, I want to help them develop some tools so that they can learn how to manage that steam that builds up, to channel it in positive ways. They also need to come to realize that I am not ultimately responsible for their learning, they are.
The official agenda: teach them all the major concepts of biology so they can pass the course and the end of course exam (on either the first or second attempt), and graduate. I have to adapt instruction, simplify assignments in some cases, use a pass/fail system when needed, or accept 80% as 100% (it’s all in the paperwork), check in frequently for understanding, and so that means skipping over the enrichment activities, skimming over the surface of key concepts without spending time enough for them to sink in through application and repetition, focusing on teaching to the tests and even dumbing down the tests, relying on easily gradable paper assignments. All of which will likely result in just as dismal results as teaching the standard course and giving nightly homework to keep things rolling.
The other choice is to skip some concepts entirely and teach deeply, in the hope that students come understand how scientific inquiry really works, how intricate and amazing and multifaceted biological systems are, how their minds can really engage with ideas, and how learning works best for them. Giving time for conversations that can address the strategy deficiencies and attitude problems and misconceptions about themselves and the world that have got them to this school in the first place. Attempting to have them, as the school mission puts it, develop their passions, giving them every chance possible to see scientific work as a candidate for personal study or career.
So I need to speak to the principal and counselor about this. What am I really accountable for, which of the many special goals for these students take priority, and what room for interpretation do I have?