“Flexible” Teaching or Fraudulent Teaching?


In “The Flexible Teacher,” Leila Christenbury tells us that, having “concluded that few of [her] students would pass the course as currently constructed”, she “jettisoned . . . deleted . . . truncated” some of the more challenging parts of her 300-level course on Teaching Writing Skills. Though acknowledging that “these changes may appear to have weakened the rigor of the original course,” Christenbury concludes it was more important to give grades of A to 14(!) of the 18 students who otherwise “would falter . . . if not fail the course.”

Christenbury calls these changes “compromise”; I call them fraud. I believe Christenbury perpetrated a fraud on at least three groups:

  1. The college administration hired and paid her to teach an upper-level course that was cross-listed in both English and education, presumably with the understanding that an appropriate syllabus would be in place. Instead, 300-level requirements were “jettisoned,” “deleted,” “truncated.”
  2. The students, who voluntarily signed up for this course level, have been hoodwinked into thinking they are proficient at the skills supposed to have been mastered at this level. They may be in for a nasty surprise when they find they really do not have 300-level skills.
  3. Anyone using the students’ transcripts as the basis for judging their ability to perform at the 300 level would be misled about their mastery of high-level work. Would anyone recommend jettisoning, deleting, or truncating parts of a 300-level course in biochemistry or engineering? Heaven help us if we are to receive medical care or drive across bridges designed by students in such courses!

Do I believe there is an appropriate place for such flexibility in course requirements? Certainly.

On the elementary school level, students have no choice but to take the classes mandated by the state’s standards. However, children will differ in their acquisition of skills because of maturation rates affecting cognitive, affective, and psychomotor skills. Since the skills taught in elementary school are basic to any further education—and since we do have a number of years to help them develop these skills—flexibility is not only admissible but advisable at this stage. (Provided, of course, we discuss issues of “social promotion” and how to communicate true ability level to readers of students’ transcripts.)

On the high school level, there are fewer reasons for this type of flexibility. In New York, for example, (where I teach in a parochial school), there are Regents-mandated exit exams that students must pass to earn a diploma. (I do not endorse these exams as proving a high level of proficiency, but they are required, so we deal with it.) If a student cannot master this level of proficiency, we would never leave them to swing in the wind.

Instead, we focus on bringing their skills (in any subject) up to and beyond a functional level. We aim to ensure that all our graduates will be able to function as knowledgeable and productive citizens of the world, and to set and achieve goals in their personal and professional lives. We don’t advise students to register for courses that demand a prerequisite level of proficiency they have not yet developed.

Can we send a student to calculus if he or she has not mastered basic concepts in algebra? That would be cruelly setting the student up for failure. Instead, we can help the student realistically assess the skills already acquired and those needed for the upper-level course in determining whether registering for that course at this time is a good idea.

I think Professor Christenbury should have done just that: inform the students of the requirements of a 300-level course and let them choose a different one, if necessary. They were not required to take this particular course; it simply helped them fulfill the requirement for an upper-level course (presumably because the administration wanted to ensure that students actually would be able to perform at the upper level). These young adults consciously chose a more challenging course, so let them be challenged by it!

Which leads me to the next point: Professor Christenbury seemed more excited by getting good reviews from her students than by actually teaching the requirements of the course. She exclaims about these struggling students giving her high rankings and positive comments. Can you imagine a physical therapist unwilling to make his patient work hard—and possibly experience the pain associated with it—just to get good reviews from the patient? Would you call that “flexibility” on the part of the therapist, or fraud’?

Our job as teachers is to help our students grow—but not under false pretenses. I am sure Christenbury’s students learned a lot in their semester with her, but not what she purported to teach—a cross-listed 300-level course on Teaching Writing Skills. I am sure she did not set out to mislead them, but more honesty on her part would have gone a long way to helping her students gain a more realistic view of their abilities and what they should have done to upgrade them. Instead, by focusing on herself as an effective and likable teacher, she neglected to tell the truth—to the administration, to the students and to anyone reading the students’ transcripts.

Post submitted by Chasya Bernstein, 12th grade social studies teacher, Brooklyn, N.Y.