Friday, October 21, 2011

My Way or the Highway

Back in the 80's, I was teaching 9th grade general math. In the back of the class sat Scott Harris (name changed for privacy). His body language and facial expression mirrored what I had been told, namely that he was just waiting until he was 16 so he could drop out of school.

One day, as I showing some new skills and and the method for solving the problem, his expression soured and his head shook in disagreement.

Puzzled by his actions, I said, "Scott, what's up?"

Frowning, he mumbled, "Nothin..."

"It must be something or you wouldn't have made a face. Come on. What is it?"

We went back and forth like this for a little while until he finally relented and said, "That's not the way I do it."

"OK, show me how you do it."

"Why? Teachers never let me do it my way. I have to do it the way they do it."

"Well, that's not the way I work. If your way works, I have no problem with it."

Still with a look of disdain on his face, he came up to the board and showed me a method I had never seen. We did a half a dozen problems and every one of them came right. Try as I might, I could not come up with a problem that couldn't be solved using his method.

I said, "That"s cool! As long as it works, you can use your method." I though I saw a glimmer of a smile as he went back to his seat.

He did well on the quiz and we moved on to the next skill. After I showed the class how the problem was solved, I turned to see Scott shaking his head again. When I asked him about it, he once again said, "That's not the way I do it."

We repeated the same scene from the week before and to make a long story short, it was repeated many more times during the year.  In fact, after about the third time, I had an assistant teacher in the class. I would show the class how to solve the problem and then invite Scott up to the board to show us the "Harris method".

He thrived in my class, but unfortunately, as far as the system and his previous teachers were concerned, Scott was a failure. I believe that Scott was actually a math genius and prior teachers didn't meet his needs. He certainly had a far greater grasp on math relationships than I did. I couldn't help but wonder whether his gift (or curse) extended to other subjects.

I wish I had a happy ending to this story, but Scott was turning 16 before the next school year and had already determined he was quitting. Scott had not failed. The system had failed him.

I don't know where Scott is today, but I hope that like so many geniuses before him who were failed by the system or terrible teachers, that he is thriving, sitting in some office as a CEO, and doing things via the Harris method.