Monday, August 7, 2017

The Goal Of Teaching

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

This quote is not wrong.

This quote should not be the goal of teachers.

I can see why teachers latch onto it. Dr. Angelou tapped into a basic human truth here, as she did so often and with such facility. But here's the thing- teaching is more than basic.

This quote is a great way to live. It's a fantastic guiding light for leading people and for being a human in general. But I am not going to look at the parents of students in my class and say, "Your son might not remember what I teach him, but he'll remember it was fun."

I imagine their response would be something along the lines of, "Aren't you a teacher? Shouldn't you be teaching my kid things so he remembers them?"

I don't teach for the test. I don't teach for an assessment. I don't teach to get praise from my administrator or superintendent or parents. I teach because I love it and believe arming students with knowledge will prepare them for the present and the future.

But wait, as they say on the QVC, there's more! Because I believe teaching to be a holistic practice that cannot be split into sections and retain truth, I also teach so that students learn to learn. I teach so students love to learn. I teach so that, in case students do forget what they learning in my class, they know how to get it back.

However, I want to do my job well enough that they don't forget. I'd like to think I'm finding ways to teach that increase student retention of the information I am presenting in class. I believe this is called learning. As a fifth grade teacher, I appreciate it when the kindergarten, first, second, third, and fourth grade teachers teach their students in a way that they retain the information. I imagine that my students' future sixth grade teachers, seventh grade teachers, and on up through high school and college, would appreciate it if the students who were in my class remember the things I taught them way back in fifth grade. Because learning is a continuum.

Maybe it's because I teach stuff like multiplication and reading comprehension. Skills that will be used over and over in a student's life. I'm only familiar with third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grade curriculum. Those are the only grades I've taught. At some point, perhaps, the actual information taught loses value.

There is a tendency to take a smart thing, and the above quote is a very smart thing, and make it a guiding principal without considering the ramifications of that choice. There is a tendency, in other words, to go whole hog into a philosophy before attempting to make that philosophy mesh nicely with previously held and also true beliefs. Now, I believe in loving something like crazy, and going into things full bore. But I believe more in ideas and philosophies as gears in a larger machine. The power of gears coming together, gears of different sizes spinning at different speeds, but all their teeth fitting and working as one to create more power than any one gear could alone. Anyone who's ever tried to ride a bicycle up a hill will tell you it's easier with more choices than on a fixie. Tools for jobs.

My job, as a fifth grade teacher, is to teach the fifth grade curriculum. This is a fact. I assume, though maybe I've never been explicitly told this, that part of that job is to teach the fifth grade curriculum in such a way that the kids will remember it. Will they remember everything? Probably not. Let's be realistic. But do I teach everything with the goal that it will stick and stick forever? Yes. I want to teach so well, I want my kids to learn so completely, that they will remember the information forever. Like the other quote says, "If you shoot for the moon and miss, you'll still end up in orbit around the Earth or possibly sailing out into space forever, light years away from the nearest star."

Dr. Angelou's quote says nothing about students or their learning. She was a smart woman. If she meant for that quote to also say, "people will forget what you taught them" it would say that. But it doesn't. It says "what you said" and "what you did." Maybe the lesson to take away from the quote is if people are forgetting what you do and say, do they should do it and say it instead. Hey, that meshes nicely with project-based learning and student voice.

I refuse to wave the white flag and resign myself to the belief that the content of my teaching is so unimportant in the long run that my students will just forget it. Because if the students won't remember what we teach them, why teach them anything? Why have curriculum? Why all the planning and goals and study?

In fact, why should I go to any professional developments? That's learning. Is my learning so unlike the learning of my students that I am expected to retain the information long-term but my kids aren't? Or should I be picking PD based on how I'll feel at the end? "Well, Mrs. Principal Lady, I don't remember what I learned, but I feel really good about learning, and that's what matters most, isn't it? PD credit, please."

What I teach matters. How the kids feel also matters. These are not different ideas. They go hand-in-hand. They work together, like gears in an engine. Teaching the information well involves helping the students appreciate the process of learning. But the teaching and learning of information is vitally important.

If I have truly taught the information in a way that the student took on board and integrated into their existing knowledge then I have done my job well. Part of the doing of that, part of what makes that possible, are the connections and relationships formed in my classroom. But the connections are not the end goal. It's not good enough that my students remember how they felt. I need them to learn and to remember. Because love of learning isn't enough. It's only part. Knowledge must be gained and retained for it to be any good.

That's the goal.

Post Script- If an answer to any of this is, "Google has made knowing or remembering things obsolete," may your phone battery never die, and may you someday find the urge to depend on yourself again. Google cannot critically think using a base layer of knowledge. Google is a gear in the machine too.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written two books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher and THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome). I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.


  1. I've never loved a P.S. more.

    1. Thanks. Yeah, I wrote the whole thing, published it, and then realized what the autocomeback would be and added that.