On 'stupid' students
At a Chinese New Year gathering yesterday, someone asked me a rather interesting question.
“So what do you do with students who are stupid?”
I was completely caught off-guard. I mean, I try very hard not to label anyone, especially my students, as “stupid”, and God forbid that I actually utter such harsh pronouncements on anyone under my care. So to be asked a direct question on my handling of “stupid” students left me speechless for a while as I grapple for an honest answer.
“W..e..ll,” I said, seeking the right words to convey the complex feelings I have about students who are less bright, “I encourage them in little ways. I praise them for even the little progress they have made. I want them to understand that they are not stupid, they just need more time for things to click.”
“But that means they are stupid!” my cousin insisted. “What if you have explained things many times and they still don’t get it? Hence they’re stupid, right? Why don’t you just tell them they’re dumb? Why tell them they’re ok when they’re not?”
You should have seen my jaw drop to the floor. I couldn’t believe the words I was hearing, from a parent with very intelligent kids. Thankfully, his wife butted in.
“How can a teacher say such things to a kid’s face? What good would it do? A teacher is supposed to encourage a student, not tear him down!” She spoke my thoughts actually.
To be fair to my cousin, I think he was merely trying to provoke me into thinking about and revealing some of the real but uncomfortable scenarios teachers and parents face when confronted with children who are not even mediocre, but are slow, not bright and who made you realize in a perverse way why streaming is a necessary evil in education.
I detest streaming. I have seen what the labeling does to a child’s self-esteem. I do not like to see such stratification in the schools, where often, the express students are treated differently from the normal streams (especially the normal technical stream) and yet, I know it is very very difficult for a normal technical student to cope if he is placed in the same class as express students. To those rare few (and my emphasis is on the word rare) who have crossed the great chasm, I salute them for their diligence and tenacity. But for the majority, such a meteoric rise can only be a dream.
But I am digressing. I was going to talk about how I countered my annoying cousin’s question.
My 'sagely' reply : “No one is stupid in everything, unless you have some mental disorder. Hence I see no reason why being frank to the student about his “stupidity” as you would like to call it, is beneficial to anyone. If you can’t do Math, ok, that’s not your strength. But you’re not stupid. I’m sure you are good in something else. I don’t believe a teacher should go around pronouncing anyone as stupid.”
Actually, I also wanted to niggle him about his Chinese, because I know that was the one thing he struggled with in school, despite graduating with top honours in other subjects. I could even be malicious, and ask him frankly, “So why are you so ‘stupid’ in Chinese?”, just to see how he would respond. But we were going to lo hei soon, and that would have spoilt the entire joyous mood.