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The Limitations of Teachers

(Image created by Nick Youngson - Creative Commons 3 - CC BY-SA 3.0 / C)

The person you are today was shaped, in part, by your own environment and experience. Parents and caregivers played a big role. And so did your teachers. Most veteran teachers will be able to watch as countless former students succeed in life. But that's not always the case. When it comes to future student success, Commentator John Richard Schrock says it's all but impossible for teachers to compile a perfect track record.

Commentator John Richard Schrock is professor emeritus at Emporia State University, where he trained generations of biology teachers.


The Limitations of Teachers
By John Richard Schrock

As teachers, we have successes with some students. And failures with others. The public probably does not understand how much teachers agonize over the students we did not reach, those we could not help.

But when a young man drove his car into the crowd at Charlottesville, killing one and harming many more, we heard his high school teacher express regret that he could not change that young man while in his classes in high school.

So now you know. As much as teachers are proud and thankful to watch a student blossom in our classrooms and then go on to live a successful and productive life, there is that darker side of this profession. Teachers silently ponder those who passed through our classrooms but failed in society, sometimes in ways that destroy their lives and the lives of those around them.

As veteran teachers, we will eventually read of the conviction of one of our former students. We will think back to their time with us in school. And we will question what went wrong. Did I miss the signs? Should I have been more understanding? Should I have applied harsher discipline? Could I have done more to guide them in a different direction?

We now live in the educational age of accountability and blame. Under the new “growth model," students are told they can become anything they want, and if they don’t... well it's the teacher's fault for having a “fixed mindset.” More and more, society seems to blame teachers for the failure of students.  

But the best of medical doctors will lose patients. And the best of teachers will lose students.

And for much the same reasons.

Some patients come to the doctor too late. Too far gone. And nothing the doctor can do can save them. Teachers only influence a portion of a child’s life, and our ability to save them is likewise, limited.
Some patients die because they fail to take the medication the doctor prescribed, or exercise, or change their lifestyle. And some students fail to do their homework or study, or take any advice that could improve their life.

So the fact that some patients die does not mean that the doctors were bad. Although doctors will all ponder at the end of the day if they could have done something better.

And when some students go on to fail in life, it does not mean that the teachers were bad, although we too will always wonder if we could have done something different.
But it is within our successes that we who teach can see the importance of personal engagement. And we should remember that the teacher who inspired one student may not be the best mentor for another. And sometimes, there just is no best mentor. And there's nothing a teacher can do.

As teachers, we respect and understand Mr. Derek Weimer, the teacher who spoke out about his former student. Mr. Weimer taught social studies to James Alex Fields at Randall Cooper High School in Union, Kentucky for two years. After the tragedy in Charlottesville, Mr. Weimer talked about his former student, saying: “Once you talked to James for a while, you would start to see that sympathy towards Nazism, that idolization of Hitler, that belief in white supremacy. It would start to creep out."

Mr. Weimer feels it now. But every teacher who sticks around long enough will come to feel it too.  


It comes when you realize that, despite your best efforts, you've been unable to change the trajectory of a troubled student’s life.

Teachers will - and should - revel in the success of former students.  

But we also need to remember this: even the best doctors lose patients. And even the best teachers lose students.


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