Over two years ago, I had occasion to write the following letter to a student. I found it recently among my files, and decided to post it here because it illustrates an aspect of my philosophy of teaching which some of my colleagues interpret as my lack of "professionalism". Others may also take issue with my publishing my critical remarks about the school. But I have done what I could to address the ethos we have, not of learning, but of easy achievement, and continue to be hopeful that it can change. I also take this opportunity to address it to my current students who feel may feel puzzled by my disinclination to "kick butt".
I want you to know that I am very appreciative of the way in which you come forward to talk things over when you feel there is a problem we need to talk about. Few students do that, and it's nice to be treated like a human being for a change, and not simply a waiter at the restaurant of Knowledge and Diplomas.
As for my behaviour in class - yes, I do have rather high expectations of my students, and no I don't usually relax these expectations. Some say I'm being unrealistic, and not very "understanding", whatever that means. So let me spell out - for you as much as for myself - what my position is.
I am aware that the educational environment in the school is not very conducive to learning in general, and not very supportive of students coping with various and divergent demands. This is primarily because we are forced to work within a system that tries to marry two opposite approaches to learning and ends up allowing students little time and opportunity to think and inquire freely and independently.
For me, teaching within the IB programme affords some respite from this claustrophobic system, but most students are unable to seize the opportunities for independent learning that the IB provides because they have become accustomed to being told what to do at every stage. The freedom to inquire and learn that the IB assumes now becomes a burden, and many bright students such as yourself respond by switching off, or just picking up whatever they can. I feel disappointed as much with my students as at my own sense of powerlessness to deal with this. Of course there are students who really thrive and excel - and I hope you are one of them - but they do so despite the system, not because of it.
I am gradually learning to live with this problem, and I have arrived at the following strategy: I will constantly try to make my lessons interesting, and provide as many resources and opportunities as possible to my students for them to learn what I am trying to teach them. It is for the students to take as much from me as they wish to take. I agree I am not the perfect teacher, and all my students have something to teach me about how students learn. (This may sound fake and corny, but this is what I feel, even though I may not be able to translate my understanding into action immediately.) In other words, I do expect my students to take the classroom as only the FIRST point of contact, and take the textbook as a launching pad into the other resources I provide. I do expect my students to ask me questions, even if I may not be able to answer them right away. These expectations are partly built into the system of assessment and grading, which is where they become a source of anxiety for the student.
Some students feel that they want the fresh perspectives and new opportunities to learn in the IB programme, but not all the hard work that it entails, because there is already too much to do. That's fine, I say, but be prepared for the consequences. I am prepared to be generous when I see students making an effort, not when I feel I am pushing them against their will.
I don't know whether writing this has helped clarify things for you, or whether you think that I have been giving a different message in class so far. At any rate, this is an invitation to a conversation, not a closing of doors. And so when you see me in a grumpy mood, it's because I am struggling yet again with the need to be kind and stimulating and humane, and to hold my students to high standards in a system which does not make it easy to do so.
Let me close with a quotation from a speech given by a Minister of Education in this country in 1933:
"The 'Professor' is not a machine for giving lectures, but is a resource to the students - one who inspires them to investigate and question, one who guides them and one who is able to sustain their enthusiasm for study and research. The real professor is himself a life-long student." (Reşit Galip, speech delivered at Istanbul University on the occasion of the university reforms, 1933)