Teacher/Subject Conflation

Once, a fifth-grader informed me that she hated science. According to her, it was a stupid, boring subject. Not class, subject. I tried to convince her otherwise but to no avail. The following year, the topic of science came up again, and I assumed that her opinion had not changed, but lo and behold: it had. This year, science was her favorite subject, not stupid and boring at all!

It took some questioning before she fully explained what was different this year, but I already knew what had changed. I had known since she first told me that she hated science, and you probably know too. She had had a bad teacher in fifth grade, but now she had a great teacher.

I’d assume teacher quality is on a bell curve like the skill level of Israeli fighter pilots and most people in skilled professions. But, the same cannot be said of subjects taught in school. They are all fascinating in their own right, but if you were to ask a representative sample of students what they thought of various subjects, I can almost guarantee that you will find that most subjects don’t seem to be very interesting. 

Teachers are often the determining factor in whether a student likes a class, and consequently a subject, and it’s a disgrace to our education system and an affront to students that so few teachers can engage a class. According to the 2018-19 NYC School Survey, less than half of support staff say “that students respond to challenging questions in class.”  If students don’t like a subject, they will not be as invested in the class, they will not challenge themselves, they won’t work as hard, and they will be less likely to pursue that subject in the future, which denies students their potential. However, in my experience, it only takes one good teacher to overpower the influence of a few worse teachers.

Often, many entrepreneurs and leaders, at least partially, attribute their success to a great teacher that they had. As Alexander the Great purportedly said, “I am indebted to my father for living, but to my teacher for living well.” Teachers are a critical factor in determining the future of our students, and we are doing students, as well as society, a disservice by letting them be withheld from their potential.

All students deserve to have the opportunity to learn from inspiring, great teachers. How do we locate these teachers? That’s beyond the scope of this post (and the UFT doesn’t want to) but I think a good way to mitigate the damages from this problem is already readily available to the masses: the internet.

I would not be nearly as interested in math if it weren’t for youtubers like 3Blue1Brown and Vsauce, and I had an amazing math teacher when I was in middle school. If it weren’t for Crash Course and Extra History, I wouldn’t have obsessively educated myself about history and learned beyond what I was being taught in the classroom, and I have had some great history teachers. Because I’ve had great teachers in school and discovered great teachers online, I’ve been able to do better academically and excel outside the classroom with my hobbies such as computer programming and dance.

For people who don’t have the opportunity to study from all the great teachers that I have had (and for me, now that I go to Stuyvesant), what will the DOE do to ensure that students will understand that a subject is so much more than a teacher or a curriculum, and allow them to realize their potential? Nothing. It’s up to us, and any teacher or parents who think they might be able to help students realize their full potential in any subject.

Teachers, parents, and adults, in general, must give students the space and resources to explore subjects on their own. Don’t assign anything, and don’t ask them what they’ve learned. Learning existed for millennia before quizzes. Let them play, explore, and learn. Give encouragement if necessary, but let them develop their own understanding of subjects independent of school or any external pressures.

They may surprise you.

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