Like most first-year teachers, I couldn’t believe some of the gaps in my kids’ knowledge. My geometry students scowled at word problems, mangled the distributive property, and handled fractions with the same fondness you’d show a steaming diaper. Privately, I grumbled. Why didn’t their old teachers cover this stuff properly? Why is it my job to pick up the pieces?
Two years later, I got the chance to teach the same kids trigonometry. I still couldn’t believe some of the holes in their background. What’s their problem with special right triangles? Where’s their intuition about proof? Why didn’t they learn this stuff? As soon as I found myself blaming the last guy, I realized.
The last guy was me.
I’m not sure “blame” has any useful place in a teacher’s philosophy. When a student enters my class, the epic story of her education has been unfolding for years. Her teachers have helped and harmed her in a thousand subtle and inseparable ways. They’ve built or shattered her confidence, kindled or snuffed her love of learning, warped or reinforced her structures of knowledge. How am I to tell the allies from the villains in that complex and shifting tale? My role is not to bring charges against my predecessors. My role is to find what snags and pitfalls are holding our hero back, and to help her along her journey.
I’m not the protagonist in her story. She is.
This year, as a private tutor, I struggle to follow my own advice. “Your teacher’s only given four homework assignments all year?” “You still haven’t gotten back that test from two months ago?” “He’s bothering with those useless product-to-sum trig formulas?” As a tutor, I get to peek into a dozen different classrooms, and I’m often discouraged by what I see. Blame creeps into my thoughts.
Then I remember what it’s like to teach: the long hours, the stacks to grade, the scramble to plan a half-decent lesson and the self-loathing when I know I’ve fallen short. I try to forgive my tutees’ teachers, knowing I’ll be back in their shoes soon enough, just as ripe for blame.
I’m reminded of one of my favorite stories. (It’s probably apocryphal, but so are all the best ones.) Brezhnev takes control in Russia, and the day before he enters office, his predecessor Krushchev (deposed and disgraced) hands him two letters.
“When you run into serious trouble, open the first envelope,” Krushchev says. “And when it happens again, open the second one.”
After a while, trouble comes, and Brezhnev fears he’ll be forced from office. He opens envelope #1, and finds a note that says:
So Brezhnev blames his predecessor, and it works like a charm, everyone letting him off the hook. A few years later, a second crisis arrives, so Brezhnev eagerly opens letter #2, hoping for another solution to bail him out. The note says:
There’s only so long you can blame the last guy. Sooner or later, the last guy is you.
P.S. In dwelling on the gaps in my students’ knowledge, I’ve vastly underrated what bright and witty and wonderful people they are. If you want an honest picture of them, just imagine the kindest, most diligent imps you’ve ever met. They still hate fractions. And I still love ‘em.