Just Teach The Curriculum (Leave That Other Stuff At Home)

TouchyFeely1There’s a cliché in education about teaching the child, not merely the subject. The more annoying version is that students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I’m not in love with either platitude, but like most things with unfortunate sticking power, they’re not entirely wrong.

Why don’t teachers and schools just focus on teaching kids the curriculum, and leave the social and personal stuff at home, where it belongs? Why do districts spend so much money on non-classroom positions, then complain they need more teachers? 

They may be phrased as questions, but they’re used as accusations. Those teachers have an agenda! They’re hemp-addled hippies, promoting New Age hokum and gender fluidity instead of teaching fractals as well as they do in Singapore.

There seems to be a deep suspicion that the only reason any of us work in the conditions we do for the pittance we earn is that we’re trying to overthrow ‘real’ America and imprison its children in an neo-Woodstock free-love tie-dye-ridden utopian wasteland. 


So I’m going to try something a bit outside my genre - a reasonable, balanced explanation of something. (I know, I know – but we have to stretch ourselves in order to grow, right? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t - like hick-hop, or dating a vegan.)

Liberal Teachers

I’d like to make a case for why in many situations effective teaching has to mingle with social work, progressive politics, or otherwise color outside the lines. 

We’ll even set aside for a moment the question of exactly what we should be teaching and why we should be teaching it to begin with. Is it about getting into college? A meaningful career? Good citizenship? Personal enrichment? Economic gain? Compliant law-abiding members of society? Better-informed voters? Less annoying co-workers? 


Should we be making sure they know how to not get pregnant? How to balance a checkbook? How to drive? How to work in groups? Take personal responsibility? Speak effectively in public? Read for pleasure? Read for knowledge? Write intellectually, creatively, or poetically? 

It doesn’t really matter how long you make the list, someone will point out something you’ve left off that’s absolutely essential – and they’ll probably be right.  

But let’s take the grandiose stuff off the table for a moment, and assume our primary goal is something tangible and pragmatic – content knowledge as measured by some sort of test. Surely whatever else we’re trying to accomplish, a little book learnin’ is in the mix?

So here’s Ms. Endocrine in Biology 101, teaching her little heart out. She’s a decent teacher, uses various strategies effectively, and knows her subject matter well. Her mid-town school has a wide variety of students and issues, but they rarely make the news for anything beyond the occasional sporting event or spelling bee. Some of her co-workers complain that each year’s students are less motivated and more distracted than the year before, but they’re probably just old and grumpy. 

Classroom of TeensHer 1st Period class is Biology 101 and has 34 students (this is obviously pre-budget cuts). Just under half are pretty much getting it and will hopefully do fine on the Big Test. Their actual enthusiasm for truly understanding science varies widely, but whatever. 

Let’s focus on the rest.

Some of them do fine most days, but are easily distracted and sometimes tune out at critical times. Whether or not they pass their E.O.I.s will largely depend on the kind of week they’ve had, or what time of day they take them, or what they had for breakfast that morning. 

Maybe it’s not the school’s job to feed them, or talk them through whatever drama is currently impacting their worlds. It’s not like they’re a disruption. But if we care whether or not they learn the state-mandated material, or whether they’ll pass the test, we might want to try anyway. If their academic progress is our responsibility, then their other issues are at least partly our problem

A couple of her girls miss part or all of her class at least twice a week for unconvincing reasons. Ms. Endocrine does her best to help them catch up each time, but they won’t come in during lunch or after school. She’s pretty sure there are real issues behind some of the absences, but other times they’re just cutting class and hiding out in the girls’ bathroom, so… that’s annoying.   

Smoking KidsMs. Endocrine could put more time and energy into figuring out what’s behind all of this, but she has 147 other students, many of whom DO show up and need regular attention. If it’s left on her, she’ll have to either ignore the absences or issue standardized consequences – detention. Suspension. ‘F’. 

None of which improve the odds of any of them passing that E.O.I.  None of which help the chances they’ll learn the important stuff mandated by the state. If their academic progress is our responsibility, then their other issues are at least partly our problem

Sometimes one her boys will demonstrate an aversion to authority, especially from women. Like many young people, they’re struggling to define themselves as part of and in opposition to what they see in the world around them. Maybe they’re getting mixed messages based on their race, or their faith, or their cultural background. Maybe they’re just teenage boys being pains in the buttocks. 

There are so many factors… among students, at least. Teachers are still predominantly moderate white Protestants from boring middle class backgrounds who learn best through orthodox means. 

But… Biology is Biology, right? Just… just do the work! Follow the rules!

Clones Clones ClonesExcept the research says dozens of other factors impact how or even if kids learn. The science says it matters how we adjust to actual, real students in front of us, whether we wish it were necessary or not. Ms. Endocrine COULD just teach the material. If they refuse to learn for whatever reason, she could give logical consequences – detention. Suspension. ‘F’. 

None of which improve the odds any of these kids will pass that E.O.I.  None of which help the chances they’ll learn important Biology stuff as mandated by the state. If their academic progress is our responsibility, then their other issues are at least partly our problem

One girl who did great first semester has been slipping. She confides to Ms. Endocrine that her parents want to send her to a special counselor to teach her not to be gay. Last week a young man told her he’d been dealing with harassment from other students (and at least one other teacher) over which bathroom he should use. It’s not enough to overtly qualify as ‘bullying,’ but…

Ms. Endocrine has little frame of reference for this sort of thing, and no idea if she even buys into some of these… ‘sexual identity’ issues. But it’s clear her kids are struggling with them, and that means they’re not really focused on redox reactions or photosynthesis.  

She didn’t sign up to talk anyone through sexual identity or anything else related to charting the path of one’s nethers, but simply nodding and handing them a tissues won’t move them forward either. If their academic progress is her responsibility, then their other issues are at least partly her problem.

Teaching ExperienceOne girl’s mom is sick – really sick. Two kids have undiagnosed ADD or OCD or some sort of acronym making things difficult all ‘round. Judy needs glasses, but keeps not getting them. A few are probably under the influence of something illegal, far too many are scarred by some form of sexual abuse in their recent past, and it’s pretty obvious to everyone that Gary has SERIOUS anger issues he doesn’t know how to control. 

Ms. Endocrine can’t fix their worlds for them, nor is that her job. She can barely keep track of who’s dealing with what. She can only pass along the consequences – detention. Suspension. ‘F’. 

None of which improve the results of that E.O.I.  None of which helps any of them learn anything mandated by the state or critical to becoming a well-rounded person. If their academic progress is our responsibility, then their other issues are at least partly our problem

Some of us work in very socio-economically difficult situations – kids arrive hungry, exhausted, angry, broken, sick, abused, or otherwise not ready to fully immerse themselves in the wonders of the future subjunctive or the Green Corn Rebellion. Other circumstances are far less dramatic, and our biggest challenge is that many decent kids from relatively normal families simply do not care about school or prokaryotes or what their GPA might look like in three years if they don’t “get serious.”

Troubled TeenSo we hire extra counselors, partnering with outside organizations when we can and eating the cost ourselves when we can’t. We create separate classrooms or activities and find specialized staff to mitigate the outside realities we can’t directly control. 

We try to find people and create programs to remove the most disruptive from the general population without sending them home to be someone else’s problem or no one’s problem, knowing there will be long-term consequences for all of us if they continue on their current path. 

We create positions which probably seem like we’re trying to parent kids who are no biological relation to us, and maybe to some extent we are – however inadequately. Yes, someone else SHOULD be doing that. Far too often, they DON'T. 

Forget whose problem it SHOULD be - if their academic progress is our responsibility, then their other issues are at least partly our problem.

It’s not about the feely touchy cares. Well, I mean – it IS, for many of the adults involved, but it doesn’t change much when it’s not.

What Is Jail, Mommy?It’s about trying to teach kids Biology, and English, and Math – things we can’t do without some regard for who we’re trying to teach and what they’ve brought with them that might get in the way. If it were as simple as just delivering content, we could pack them in the gym and show a video lecture each day. Even better, just send a DVD home with them – see you when it’s time to assess.

We teach the kids we have, not the fictional kids you think we have or think you went to school with back in the day. And if their academic progress is our responsibility, then their other issues are at least partly our problem.

That means staff to counsel. That means staff to advocate. That means staff and resources to try different learning environments or alternate disciplinary procedures within the existing system, somehow. That means feeding kids we shouldn’t have to feed, and approving of kids you wouldn’t approve of.

If for no other reason than hoping they’ll eventually pass Biology.


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Tulsa area teacher, educational consultant, and general inspirer of minds young and old. Everything I say is so wise even I can hardly believe it. Feel free to concur.
you sound a bit more like a jack ass to me

Well, Raplh - thanks so much for your insightful and productive comments. I will attempt to use them to refine my wit and insight. 


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