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To the rescue…or not

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Image thanks to Csar on Flickr


A thousand years ago when I taught high school Spanish, a colleague of mine and I used to make plans to pack our own lunches and meet for lunch. Philip was a wonderful teacher and a great friend. Where we taught was his second teaching career (or maybe third?) having already retired from the public schools once but eager (and very able) to keep on going in the classroom.

I was a new teacher, recently married, with an infant at home. And these adolescent students of mine were infuriating. I would set deadlines and they would not make them! I would teach them things and they would not learn them! Oh, my, I was young. And Philip, thankfully, was very, very patient.

During one of my rants he looked at me very calmly, folded his napkin, dabbed his mouth and said: “Barbara, when you have children of your own that are this age, you will be a very different teacher.”

At first I was enraged and felt like I was getting a head pat. With time, and 20 plus years teaching, and now almost fully grown sons… I came to understand what he meant. And then I added my own spin on it.

Later I realized he was telling me to cut them some slack, to be patient, and to realize that sometimes those intelligent little middle school darlings are so overwhelmed by hormones that they deserved more pity than scorn. And indeed, as I watched my own kids go through that phase I found myself grateful for the teachers who were patient and understanding and could see the person underneath that messy cloud of chaos. And as a result I think I am a more patient teacher thanks to my colleague…and my kids.

Recently I thought about what Philip said in a different context. Yes it is important to have empathy, and to see things via a perspective other than your own…. but empathy does not mean swooping in and rescuing someone from failure. Sometimes failure, or doing a piss-poor job at something, is the best thing that can happen to a student.

image thanks to JeffPro57


A couple years ago I taught this wonderfully brilliant student. Let’s call her Kate. Kate was smart in so many ways. But Spanish was a struggle and directing her own learning was her own personal hell. It was a hard, upsetting, difficult term. Kate ended up giving herself a D.

Part of me wanted to jump right in and save Kate and use my teacherly powers to give her a better grade. (For any of you students out there who might be reading this? Let it be known that reporting a failing grades for a student is not something we enjoy doing at all. I lost a lot of sleep over this one)

Three months later, new semester, I saw my former student at the Library. I cringed and thought “oh god” she probably is seething because of that class. Instead, she walked over and hugged me and then thanked me. That D was one of the best things that could have happened to her, she told me, and she was grateful. Grateful. It was a wake up call for her about many things…and it needed to happen so that she could fix the things that were preventing her from performing well.

As we wind our way into the end of the semester, I am delighted by the progress that most of my students are making. But every semester there are one or two that despite my best intentions, they are self-sabotaging. I feel the need to rescue, to save themselves from themselves. And then I think of Kate, and realize that sometimes, as hard as this is, sometimes it is best to just to let them fall.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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