Prepare the Student for the Path, not vice versa

A few summers ago, as I strolled along a pool deck in Moraga, CA, awaiting the start of one of my youngest son’s USA Water Polo 14U Junior Olympic qualification games, I noticed a powerful statement posted on one of the bulletin boards. It struck me immediately, as a parent, teacher, and sportsman; albeit for the latter, my state of physical fitness confines me to the sidelines as a spectator, assistant coach, and/or referee, as the situation warrants.

“Prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.”

The simplicity of this statement coupled with its truth, from my perspective, powerfully persists in my mind today, as strongly as it did on that hot summer day in 2016. I took a photo of it, which I intended to include, however I am unable to find it in my collection. I hope the original document remains today at the Soda Aquatic Center in Moraga. [1]

Dozens, if not hundreds, of articles, blog posts, and editorials focused on parenting, teaching, and coaching reference the gist of this statement with its corollaries, such as persistence, grit, and stick-with-it-ness, to name a few; none of these are meant to be applied universally without the application of common sense. [2]

With regards to teaching, the statement’s applicability spans preschool through post-doctoral education. The article Preparing the Student or Preparing the Student’s Path, posted in 2011 on ProfHacker, hosted by The Journal of Higher Education, details a university instructor’s challenges teaching her students, that is young adults. [3] Along with the author, some might view students such as hers and many of those in high schools across our country as overly coddled.

As a former mathematics teacher in high schools, both public and private, I can attest to the prevalence of parental protestations pushing the envelope of reasonableness, oftentimes bypassing and omitting me entirely in their quest to right perceived wrongs. While these parents comprise a small percentage of any course section’s parent population, they tend to be the most vocal and politically savvy when seeking retribution for wrongs perceived by stressed adolescents. Frustratingly for me, the low expectations and lower order learning environments present in many high school classrooms throughout America condition students to expect milquetoast instructors that provide direct instruction in a monotonic manner. While direct instruction need not be monotonous per se, the lack of challenge present in this method often bores teacher and student alike. Also, it predisposes students to react negatively and stressfully when they encounter a teacher who employs more robust teaching methods. [4]

Ironically, much of students’ stress originates with either parental heavy-handedness in their child’s education, misunderstandings by students of what is expected of them by their parents or their teachers, or other difficulties faced by many adolescents today in their hyper-competitive, hyper-dynamic lives. As a parent of a twenty-year old son, and a sixteen-year old son, both of whom attended or attend a highly ranked high school, I get it. However, I recognize that there is more than one-side to these situations. Nonetheless, and sadly, in my experience, the influence of the very vocal, minority of parents with complaints far outweighs that of the non-vocal majority, or a subset of vocal parents with praise. At times, this latter group of parents attempts to counteract the efforts of those who misattribute their child’s difficulties as they, and their children, relish the learning environment. I strive to prepare all children for success in college and life; they get it, whereas the vocal minority rarely gets it.

Also, neither the author of “Preparing the Student or Preparing the Student’s Path,” as she writes in her reply to comments to her post, nor my reference to her article, diminishes the very real challenge some students face in their learning efforts. My oldest son suffered a severe concussion in his freshman year of high school, which lead to a variety of cognitive and other neurological difficulties. To assist his ability to succeed in learning, he required and received a variety of accommodations under what is commonly referred to as a 504 plan. This support accompanied him to community college, where he will shortly receive an AA-T in Kinesiology. These supports are necessary and important.

However, as most students do not require such accommodations, her post and mine addresses the tendency for many parents in my generation, and subsequent ones, to overzealously protect their children from experiencing any challenge, real or imagined, in their lives. I believe this tendency, while instinctive in many ways, does more harm than good to the individual student as well as to our collective society. It is a paradox of parenting. One that very recently drove me to take an unpaid sabbatical from teaching at the secondary level.

[1] The history and name of the Soda Aquatic Center, located on the Campolindo High School campus in Moraga, is tied to the Y & H Soda Foundation. Founded in 1964, the Y & H Soda Foundation has been dedicated to providing charitable contributions to non-profit organizations seeking to enhance “the quality of life for the economically disadvantaged, disabled, elderly and youth; to promote their health education and to support those organizations… which strengthen the spiritual and temporal well-being of those they serve” (Y & H Soda Foundation). Through Y & H Soda Foundation’s generous grant to the school district, the Soda Aquatic Center opened its doors to the public in November of 1999. Since then, the Soda Aquatic Center has been providing quality aquatic programs for the health and well-being of the surrounding community.

[2] Sadly, my teaching travails taught me that common sense is not very common; I’m aware of the incorrectness of this perspective, too. It reinforces my concern for the survival of our society where much like the Tower of Babel, our citizens may scatter, or fracture, to form homogeneous regions where shared sense is truly common.

[3] ProfHacker is a site hosted by The Journal of Higher Education that is dedicated to pedagogy, productivity, technology, and especially the intersection of these, in higher education.

[4] Direct instruction does not develop all students to their fullest potential. In my experience, students who primarily experienced that modality of instruction develop a strong resistance to any unfamiliar teaching method, or learning experience, to their near term and longer term detriment. I experienced this resistance full bore twice in my teaching career over a span of eight years. Each time, as a “new” mathematics teacher of multiple sections of an AP Calculus AB course, students arrived in my classroom expecting instruction similar to what they experienced previously, which on its face seems reasonable. However, they were woefully unprepared to engage with the course content in any meaningful manner, and worse, to develop any true understanding of the concepts or procedures of the calculus.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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3 Responses to Prepare the Student for the Path, not vice versa

  1. janietta lusk says:

    I’m not sure that accommodations such as the ones your son had post concussion are “preparing the path”. I think they are “preparing the student”. I looked at that phrase and thought that we would never tackle the Appalachian Trail without proper supplies. No sane person would try to climb Mount Everest without snow gear. Team sports require uniforms, and contact sports require padding. No one would try to do archery without a bow and arrow. The math class itself requires equipment. In geometry, for example, the student needs access to compass and protractor. I think that providing the necessary equipment for students IS preparing them.

    That said, there is a line between providing the student with adequate equipment and changing the path. Tackling the Appalachian Trail with the proper supplies is not the same thing as driving along the road. Nor is it the same thing as walking laps around the track. We need to reinforce this idea, starting much earlier in a student’s life.


  2. Pingback: The Rise of Safetyism: When Student Perception Rules | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

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