Thoughts for No One in Particular

Greatest good for the greatest number

In my final year in school, I took on a part-time job to teach at an all-girls junior college. I was a last-minute addition, recruited by someone I met while I was specializing in Education – I had no prior teaching experience, but she had confidence that I could manage, having learned the fundamental theories in education and learning and understanding the basic methods of conducting classes.


I never expected myself to become a teacher, but upon deciding to take the job, I decided also to set a goal for myself: to do the greatest good for the greatest number of students. But is this not what all teachers aim to achieve, you ask?


When I was a student myself, I preferred taking written tests over doing presentations, and I did better on open-ended questions than on multiple choice questions. I did not like raising my hand and speaking up to the entire class, but I was good at getting my opinion picked up in group discussions. And I loved writing research papers on what interested me, practically living in school libraries to read up on as much references as possible!


There were some classes I did not fare well because the way I was evaluated on my understanding was not of those I liked or did well in (of course, there were a few others I did miserably because I simply did not understand!). I was bumbed out in these classes, but I was even more upset when teachers gave me, and only me, “additional go’s” to display my knowledge. I know they were trying to help me out, but it made me feel deficient in some way and worried that my classmates would think I got extra points unfairly.


So, from my own experience, I knew at least two things I wanted to do: one, to let students choose how they wished to show their understanding of what I teach, and two, to give equal opportunity to choose to all students (i.e., I would not treat students who needed more attention any differently than their classmates – if I felt I needed to give them an “additional go,” I would give it to all).


Maybe it sounds idealistic, but not so easy to implement?

Maybe, but I would rather set my goals high and feel sure progress when I finally achieve them, than simply be satisfied with attaining easy goals without ever feeling growth.


Maybe I was asking for trouble by wanting to do too much?

Maybe, but I would rather try everything I could and still fail, than regret not trying enough and wonder if I could have succeeded more.


Maybe I did not have to put myself through all this to do the greatest good for the greatest number of students?

Maybe, but I would rather interpret this utilitarian concept as a guidance on maximizing my utility to promote as much understanding in as many students as possible, than as an excuse to dismiss some students as lacking utility to promote my reputation as a great teacher.


I will not lie – I think I saw hell that year. I was constantly preparing for class and marking tests and grading papers. I was perpetually sleep-deprived, and habitually frustrated for not getting the responses I wished to get from my students. I had headaches all the time and my nails grew shorter every day from biting nervously. And I had no one but myself to blame – there were many a night I hated myself for putting myself through all this!


But, at the end of that year, I think I saw heaven. A couple of my students came up to me and thanked me… One was a girl who seized every opportunity I presented, leading me to apologize in the end because she had stacked up more points than I could officially give on her report card – she told me she had always been a “good student” but never felt much fun studying because nothing was intellectually challenging, but she felt joy from the various achievements she made in my class in so many different ways.


Another was a girl who I struggled to pass until the very day of submitting grades. I had the most difficult time figuring out her interests and motivations, and even when I did, giving shape to her thoughts proved to be a formidable task. She probably hated me for bugging her incessantly, and I certainly hated myself for having had to bug her incessantly. But when I told her she had earned the lowest possible passing grade, she said it was the first time someone did not give up on her.


These are just two students out of the forty I taught that year. I believe I was able to do some good to these two, but I do not know if it was the greatest good, and I have no idea how I fared with the other thirty-eight. Maybe I fell well short of my goal to do the greatest good for the greatest number of students, who knows. But the experience I gained that year continues to do greater and greater good for me to this date, and I am sure it will keep getting greater.


Maybe the way I carried out my class does not seem practical at all to experienced full-time teachers, but I hope it has some utility in your efforts to do the greatest good for the greatest number of your students!


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