“The first thing I do when I meet a group of new students is…explain that if the students fail they’re to blame me. Then they laugh, and relax, and I explain that really it’s obvious that they should blame me, since I’m supposed to be the expert.”––Keith Johnstone “Notes on Myself”
The story goes like this: An older couple once hosted a dinner party for their adult children, among them many teachers.
For example, there was a university professor who, in a candid moment, turned to her brother the community college instructor. "Listen you, I don't know what's going on over there, but students arriving from the 2-year campuses are ill-prepared for the rigors of my university.
“Don’t blame me,” said the brother. “You should see the kind of students graduating high school these days.”
“Hey!” said their older sister, a high school teacher, who happened to overhear. “It’s not our fault. They leave middle school barely knowing a thing.”
“What do you think we can do about it?” asked another brother. “It’s what happens at the elementary school that really counts.”
“Wait,” said another brother, a fifth grade teacher, sitting nearby. “You can’t blame us. Things they’re supposed to learn back in pre-school aren’t even being covered.”
“Well, what can we do? Do you have any idea what we're working with?” said the youngest sibling, a pre-school teacher. “Surely we all know who’s really to blame.”
At that moment their parents leaned out of the kitchen shouting, “We did the best we could!”
I like this story because it reminds me of a central tenant of teaching: no matter the challenges, my students are my students. They arrive with what they have, and they already have a lot. There are no better, more perfect students, waiting down the hall. The sooner I accept this the sooner learning begins.
I remember the stress-filled early years of teaching community college English. I was often shocked by my students’ attitudes and work ethic. I spent many sleepless hours blaming first myself and then them for essays they didn’t write, the classes they missed, the books they refused to read.
If I were a “good” teacher, wouldn’t they want to learn? I’d lie awake pondering it all until it hurt too much. Then I’d shift focus and begin placing blame on them. After all, if they were “good” students wouldn’t they come prepared? At no point, did those questions lead to better outcomes in my classes.
Now I know a moment spent trying to assign blame with precision and accuracy is already a moment too long. Blame doesn’t lead to solutions.
Paradoxically one reason I loved reading the “Notes on Myself” chapter of Keith Johnstone’sclassic book Impro: Improvisation and the Theater was his willingness to accept blame for his students’ “failures.” After all, if not the teacher who is else in the room is actually charged with the responsibility for another’s learning, he asks.
Johnstone started out as an elementary school teacher in some rough schools in England and only later began teaching theater. His book has much to say about what educators typically get wrong about how people learn.
He believes that students must first have a sense a safety. They must feel safe enough to risk failure. I found his approach liberating. Safety means there is a quality of forgiveness in the relationship between teachers and students. This creates an opening for students, yes, but for teachers too.
Over my more than decade of working at community college, here’s what else I’ve found most helpful to learning:
· A welcoming attitude toward students’ expression and ideas.
· An environment that values spontaneity, creativity, celebration, experiment, and play as much as it does planning and goals.
· A tangible sense that teachers and students are members of the same team; it’s beneficial to everyone in the room to work toward one another’s success.
Creating those conditions is, in large part, the teacher’s responsibility, and responsibility is a much better and more liberating word than blame.