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TEACHER VOICES: Dave Keller, #6

Teachers can’t win an argument with a student

Dave Kellerfavicon I learned another valuable lesson this week. Don’t argue with students. Care about them. Work hard with them. But don’t argue with them.

This tale ends with my student, Scott, failing a major assignment. I knew he would fail even before he turned it in. For the last three months, I’d been working with him in my spare time: poring over his writing, correcting logic, giving suggestions on organization and effective word choice.

The evidence of his impending failure came two weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon. We had scheduled a writing conference because his latest draft was terrible. It was a gorgeous Sunday when I rolled into school to find he was canceling our meeting so that he could hang out with his friends. My patience was pushed to its limit. He was going to fail, and my months of work with him were about to fizzle, leaving no concrete accomplishment.

But what really made me angry was his excuse for not meeting with me. “I have to cancel our meeting. I have no choice.” His friends were putting on a show, and they were demanding he cancel with me so he could attend their event.

The next time I saw Scott, I pulled him aside. The conversation started calmly with my saying that I was angry with him for canceling our meeting. He countered by saying he had no choice. I pointed out that he did have a choice, which was one of the reasons I was upset. That is when he began to argue — and when I lost it. At the time, it felt like I was using blistering logic to show how Scott’s points not only were wrong but also were hurting him and those around him.

In retrospect, it seems like our disagreement was a case of teen logic vs. adult logic, so I’m not sure I won. (Scott may have seen me as the high school equivalent of Charlotte Dial at Brooklyn Success Academy.) But even if I did win the argument, I really lost in the ways that matter.

When Scott began to argue, I forgot the lessons of the author LouAnn Johnson who warned teachers against arguing with students in her book, My Posse Don’t Do HomeworkShe writes that adults will always win arguments because they have most of the power. While winning might feel good momentarily for the teacher, Johnson points out that a teacher’s job isn’t to win a fight but rather to help a student.

In my case, Scott failed a very critical assignment that I was trying to help him pass. I would have gladly lost the argument with him if it would help improve his work. He lost the argument; I lost a chance to help him succeed. In the big picture, lose-lose.

Since the incident, I’ve repaired our relationship as best I can — going out of my way to compliment the improvements I see in his work, chatting with friendly banter, and generally showing him I have no hard feelings. My efforts seem to have worked. Friday, he gave me a hug as he joyfully told me that he just received an acceptance to his first choice college. He thanked me for my letter of recommendation. In the biggest picture, this situation turned out to be a win-win. A Donald Trump kind of win. Probably because of a lot of hard work and not because someone won an argument. 
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Dave Keller (@dkeller101) has been teaching Social Studies for 17 years, consistently looking for new curriculum and methods of instruction. While experimenting with technology in education, Dave focuses on teaching the reading and writing skills required for studying our social universe. He has taught classes throughout the Social Studies discipline in a variety of high schools, including a large comprehensive inner-city school, a charter school, and a competitive independent school. He currently lives in Oakland and teaches at Piedmont High.

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