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In the middle of the fall semester, I find myself thinking back to the end of another school year, for it was the time that changed my teaching for good—and, I believe, for the better. It was May, and I was driving across the Midwest on my annual pilgrimage to the International Congress of Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to deliver a paper about fourteenth-century penitential manuals and their influence on Chaucer. But my mind was back in Maryville, Missouri, on a freshman class in composition that had just ended.

It had been a terrible class. The twenty-five students had, with only a couple of exceptions, done poorly; worse, they had been the definition of recalcitrance, resisting everything I had tried to teach them, and had become downright surly by the end of the semester. It had gotten to the point where I had given them a fairly simple set of materials to learn, and said, “Look, this is basic and crucial to what we’re doing. I’m going to quiz you on this every day until I’m sure you can pass it, and it will be the first third of the final exam.” A majority of the students flunked it every time, and even flunked it on the final.

I had been warned by colleagues before the semester began. This was the “Intro to Composition” class, yet it was in the Spring semester—“off sequence,” as they say. In other words, the students I met in January had either flunked the course in the fall, or had just emerged from the remedial “foundations of composition” course that attempted to get them up to speed where they could take this class. But I didn’t have much choice—the new, tenure-track prof teaches what he’s assigned without grumbling, and in my hubris, I had brushed the worries aside. I was still a young teacher, the kind who could connect with his students and work with them on their level. This was what I did, after all, and I was known for my energetic classroom presence. I was the one who had students over to his house, gave innovative assignments, and tried unusual things. Once, in my second year of teaching, I had even gone to the dormitory to find a student who had been skipping my class. I had never had that scorn taught in graduate school for the art of teaching; if anything, I put much more energy into my teaching than my research.

So there I was driving across the Midwest after the semester and wondering what had gone wrong. Why had this class crashed so badly, been such a failure for both the students and me? I was angry, confused, disturbed. I began replanning the class from the ground up: better assignments, more personal meetings with the students to discuss their papers, having them assemble portfolios of writing. It would be a lot more work—the research would have to be put off again—but that’s what a teacher does, I thought.

Yet somewhere in Illinois the thought occurred to me that the problem was with the ideas I was importing into my pedagogy. I believed that the students’ learning was somehow primarily my responsibility; I had somewhere imbibed the notion that if I were just passionate enough, energetic enough, prepared enough, creative enough—if I worked hard enough, got to know my students well enough, and presented the material in a fresh enough way—that I could reach every student. I would be able to teach the student, not the subject, and transform his life.

What I discovered was that I thought of my students as innocent and malleable, uncorrupted, unspoiled, and it was only my task to light the fire in their souls. Even though I was a conservative in so many other areas of my life, I discovered to my shock that I was, in my pedagogical philosophy, still the liberal I had been at age eighteen.

And I realized immediately the harm that this had done. I was full of hubris; I was exhausting myself, and I was, unaware of it, condescending to my students.

I believe many in the teaching profession are in this state, and that our popular ideology of the teacher pushes them in this direction. In films such as Stand and Deliver or To Sir, With Love, in books and television and popular images, we see the teacher as the good liberal: the secular, good-hearted, amazing transformer who, through sheer will, preparation, and energy, can overcome human nature and make his students into something new.

What occurred to me as I crossed Illinois was quite simple, and yet profound: It wasn’t my fault. I had taught those students well; I had given them the same assignments, the same pep talks, the same advice and instruction that I had given numerous sections of the very same course many times before, and they rejected it. That is, I had something—well, something like grace to offer them, and they had, in their human freedom, chosen not to take what I had to teach them. It was a tremendously liberating discovery, this notion that students, rather than being angels, were sinful humans. Now I was no longer trying to invent new paradigms for my teaching, come up with better assignments, more innovative ways to grade and assess their progress so I could help them more. Instead, I decided that I would begin the next semester making clear my new discovery: that students are responsible for their own learning, and that, if they were going to do well, they would have to accept this responsibility as adults and perform well.

Now I do this at the beginning of every class. My students get a set of “Principles of a Roper Class,” and the first one is: “It’s time to take responsibility.” The second is: “You have to practice to improve.” I no longer consider every student’s failure to be my own and every bad class to be the fault of my lack of preparation. By accepting that students have free will, and in fact are shot through with original sin, one comes to the conclusion that even the best of students at times can get lazy, or turn aside from proffered good—in fact that all students will do it at one time or another, and that this in no way impugns the worth of the teacher offering the grace of new learning. I relax now; I do my best to offer my students what I can, but I no longer take it so personally. It is humbling and yet reassuring to discover one is not a miracle worker. I find that I am happier, too: less hurt by their failures, but also more rejoicing, because less hubristic, about their successes.

I wonder how many of the problems in our schools—especially, but not limited to, the problem of teacher burn-out—come from this faulty theology, a theology I am convinced is the very air breathed in most education colleges and departments today. For secular liberal pedagogy not only creates a teacher exhausted from struggling daily to overcome human nature, but it also does nothing to insist that students take primary responsibility for their own education, a debilitating and ultimately demeaning position.

We see today, those of us who teach at the college level, a disturbing number of these students, sad young men and women who have gone through twelve years of school with the attitude that it is someone else’s fault if they fail—and we occasionally talk to parents who have apparently supported their children in this mistaken notion. As I think back to my truly excellent teachers, they were not the exhausted, earnest ones, but the ones who presented the material with scholarly excellence and demanded we take up the charge to discover it, master it, own it for ourselves. I had been a pretty good teacher, and in many other ways a theological conservative, and yet it took me about eight years of teaching—and one terribly horrendous class—to discover this. Perhaps we could do a great deal to help teachers and students by instructing teachers in the depredations of this liberal pedagogical theology. Once we give it the boot, we might find happier and healthier teachers, and better educated students.

Gregory Roper is Associate Professor of English at the University of Dallas.

Image by Wallpaper Flare licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.