Yes, there was always someone who screwed up before students arrived in our classes. There were parents who failed their children, teachers who failed their students, and a society that is failing everyone except the very rich. And there is no way that anything we do in a single course can change all of that. Even if the entire educational system did everything imaginable to save our students, we would still lose many.
But when we look out at the faces of the students whom fate has brought into our courses, none of that matters. We are not responsible for everything that occurs in the broader society, but we are accountable for what happens to the students in our courses. It is our duty and our privilege to help them make whatever change they need in their lives – to offer them a chance to succeed when they have been told that they are failures, to give them a richer picture of life’s possibilities, to raise the moral trajectory of their lives, to help them learn to be better friends, workers, parents, citizens.
If the tools that we have at hand are inadequate to the task, we have an obligation to search for better ones. If the ways that we present ourselves and conceptualize our roles as teachers are not contributing to our students’ growth, we need to explore different ways of being in the world. If the institutions around us are not committed to helping students find their way, we need to seek out fellow travelers on this voyage or, if necessary, continue alone. It may take years of personal and pedagogical exploration to find the best way to magnify our impact. But, if we are not to abandon our roles as teachers, we must hold to the belief that it is always possible to discover a way to make a difference for at least some of our students. Only such a commitment will assure that we never overlook an opportunity to help them alter their life’s trajectory.
It is easy to allow this duty slip away, to try to shift the responsibility to someone else – to our students, to their parents, to their previous teachers, to the uncaring educational institutions around us, to the broader society. We can let other concerns drive our vocation into the margins of our lives and surrender to the values of a world that treats most students as expendable. And we can soothe our consciences with the fantasy that we really would be great teachers, if we only had the right students, the right colleagues, the right institution.
But the reality remains that we teach the students the world has presented us with, or we are not teachers. Everything else is an excuse.
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