Rough drafts on teaching: Answering the question

Published 12:06 am Sunday, May 10, 2015

By Larry Efird

For the Salisbury Post  

 Editor’s note: Teacher Larry Efird is starting a periodic column in the Post to  encourage fellow teachers and give the public insight into the teaching profession.  

                  Over the years, I have taught in a variety of places and to students of all ages, shapes, and sizes. (The only grade I’ve never taught is kindergarten.) I have come to expect humorous comments from young children, but some of my funniest responses have come from older students. What I thought was an easy question on a test or quiz turned out to be challenging for a student or two, as evidenced on the following answers from tests that I personally administered:

  1. The first human on the moon was Neil Diamond.
  2. The French Revolution was caused by an uprising of the pheasants.
  3. To provide more affordable housing for people living in crowded cities, the government created slums.
  4. General Custard met defeat at Little Big Horn.

Another interesting answer I received once came from a 17-year-old who was in an adult high school class at a local community college. A question on his enrollment form called for him to list a “self-defined” goal. He said the reason he had entered the adult high school program was “To make my mother happy.” At least he was honest.

How often we as teachers are surprised by how little some of our students know, even after we’ve painstakingly covered all the material in the unit. We can be amused — and annoyed — by their lack of knowledge, but we can also become discouraged. Who didn’t experience some sort of shock in our first year teaching about just how intellectually deprived the students were in his or her first class? They didn’t seem to be as smart as we thought they would be. And, quite possibly, we didn’t feel as smart as we thought we would be before we started teaching!

I’ll never forget the first English test I gave to a group of tenth graders in Augusta, Ga. Almost all of them failed miserably. At first I thought they hadn’t studied at all, and that they needed to learn a lesson from their abysmal grades. But later, I saw a pattern on the test. Many of them missed the same questions, not because they had cheated, but because the questions were ambiguous. I had also made out the test in my wife’s hospital room the day after our first child was born. I was a new teacher — and a new father — and was learning how to be both. Somewhat humbled, I realized that I wasn’t a perfect test-giver, and that my test was flawed. It even made me wonder if I could have passed the test myself without having known the answers ahead of time.

I have come to realize that just because my students can answer all the questions on one of my tests doesn’t necessarily mean they have really learned anything. It also doesn’t prove that they can think critically. My philosophy of education has been shaped by the ever changing needs of students in the ever changing world we live in.   Of course, they do need a certain amount of basic information to succeed, but they also need to know how to use the information that they have been given and apply it to their own lives. I need to know why I’m asking them a question in the first place, in order for me to know how to ask the right question. Knowing how to answer a question and knowing why the answer is correct are two different things.

I think I’ve learned how to make better tests after all these years, and I hope I’m a better teacher than I was when I first started. But the thing about teaching is that we have to continually grow because the questions the world is asking change with each decade. If someone had asked me when I started teaching what the numbers 9-1-1 meant, I would have answered “an area code.”