“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.
There was the university professor who, in a candid moment, turned to her brother the community college instructor, saying students arriving from the 2-year campuses were ill-prepared for the rigors of her university classrooms.
“Don’t blame me,” he said. “You should see what kind of students we get from the high schools.”
“Hey,” said their older sister, a high school teacher, who happened to overhear. “It’s not our fault. They leave elementary school barely knowing a thing.”
“Wait,” said another brother, one of the elementary school teachers, sitting nearby. “You can’t blame us. Things they’re supposed to learn in pre-school aren’t being taught.”
“But why blame me?” 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 where dinner was being prepared. “We did the best we could!”
I like this story because it reminds me of a central tenant of teaching: My students are my students. They arrive with what they have. There are no better, more perfect students, waiting just down the hall. The sooner I accept this the sooner learning can begin.
I remember the stress-filled early years of teaching community college English classes. I was often shocked by my students’ attitudes and work ethic. I spent many sleepless hours blaming first myself and then them for the essays they didn’t turn in, 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 until it hurt too much. Then I’d transition and begin placing blame on them. After all, if they were “good” students wouldn’t they come better prepared? At no point, did those questions lead to a better outcome 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 solution.
Paradoxically one reason I loved reading the “Notes on Myself” chapter of Keith Johnstone’s classic book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre was his willingness to accept blame for his students’ “failures.” After all, who is else in the room is actually charged with the responsibility for other’s learning, if not the teacher? 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––creating an opening for students, yes, and, by extension, for teachers too.
Over my more than decade of working at community college, here’s what else I’ve found helpful:
- A welcoming attitude toward students’ expression and ideas.
- An environment that demonstrates planning while also valuing spontaneity, creativity, celebration, experiment, and play.
- A tangible sense that teachers and students are a team; it’s beneficial to everyone in the room to work toward each other’s success.
Creating those conditions is in large part the teacher’s responsibility, and responsibility is a word I find more inviting than blame.