I’m a spoiled teacher. Most of my students commit to education and want to do well. Most work hard. They desire what schooling can bring them and generally treat me with respect. Some offer me deference that makes me feel undeserving. A teacher could not ask for better students.
Still, some are better than others.
The best are not the most talented. I teach many students who—by any measure available—are much more intelligent than I am. Some of them read, write, reason, and solve at speeds unfathomable to me and, though they don’t know everything yet, I sometimes think that, with enough will, they might. They ask questions that occurred to me much later in life, and, when I imagine my high school self sitting in the same classroom with them, I feel an idiot. How is it that I am teaching them?
But the brightest are not always the best. For some, school is a kind of game, and they direct their intelligence toward making A’s, which—I hope I don’t need to say—is not always the same as learning. Their motives are extrinsic. They want a grade or they want a college or they want ratification, approval, renown, or status. They play students, some so intently it appears they wish to fool themselves. A few make that magic transformation, but most don’t. Their curiosity is unreliable. School is job that, try as they might, they just don’t enjoy.
The biggest difference isn’t ability but attitude. One kind of mind writes essays that are skilled and correct. The other infuses each sentence with an infectious spirit. One kind looks for relief, another looks for amusement. One bores easily—its sails droop at the least lull. Others balloon even when the only wind is one the sailor provides. One looks for angles, unfenced pages to cut across, the other dawdles, wandering with little path at all.
It isn’t always obvious which is which—some students may be curious in another class or in another month or in another year—but the very best students look for an excuse to engage. They are slow to reject any book or any subject, and, though they might hesitate in the face of an assignment, they resist in the interest of doing something more attuned to their curiosities. They don’t always develop economy of effort—I wish for their sake they did—but, when they do learn to study efficiently, it’s to accomplish more, not to receive equal credit for less effort. Avoiding labor is never their desire. As George Iles once said, “Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student.” My best students are always moving on, never finishing and never wanting to.
Please don’t misunderstand. These thoughts are not a lament. I’m grateful to work with so many diligent students, whatever their present motives, but I sometimes wish I could reward them for their curiosity instead of their “scholastic achievement.” To me, only the desire to learn matters. Having that, a student is bound to gain knowledge, understanding, skill, wisdom. Without sincere interest, no sustainable learning occurs.
I wish that, back in the early 20th century when Alfred Binet developed his test for intelligence, he had come up with a method of measuring curiosity instead. Then I might tell my students where they really stand.
And I might be a more spoiled teacher still.