Persistent Dilemmas That Cling to Teaching

November 12, 2012

Nearly three years ago I wrote a post on a new teacher’s dilemma. In that post I defined what a dilemma was and distinguished it from a problem. Then I presented an instance of a dilemma in a novice’s classroom and asked readers what they thought.

Since then, I have written about dilemmas often in this blog (see herehere, and here). Because “dilemma” is so  often used as a synonym for “problem” and because these tensions over choices are constant in our personal and professional lives, I offer this older post again to new readers.

I have used the word “dilemma” in earlier posts since superintendents, principals, teachers, and, yes, students face situations that call for difficult choices among conflicting values. So for this post, I offer a thorny dilemma with which readers can wrestle.

By dilemmas, I mean situations where you have to choose between two or more competing and prized values. The choice is often hard because in choosing you end up sacrificing something of value to gain a bit of satisfaction on another value.

An example of a common dilemma might help. One that each of us face is the personal/professional dilemma. You value highly your work and you value highly your family and friends. Those are the competing values. But your time and energy are limited. So you have to calculate the trade-offs between doing more of one and less of the other. You have to make choices.

You map out options: Put in fewer hours at work and more time at home. Or the reverse. Take more vacations and give up thoughts of career advancement. These and other options, each with its particular trade-offs, become candidates for a compromise that includes both satisfaction and sacrifice. If you do nothing–another option–you risk losing out with your family and friends or with your job.

This is not a problem that one neatly solves and moves on to the next one. It is a dilemma that won’t go away. It is literally built into your daily routine. There is no tidy solution; it has to be managed because the compromise you work out may unravel and there you are again, facing those unattractive choices.

With that brief definition of a dilemma, consider the following situation that faced this first-year teacher.

In a culturally diverse high school of 1300 students in northern California, Dorothy Ramirez teaches 10th grade biology. In one of her 5 classes she has 32 students of whom one-third are Latino, one-third are African-American, and one-third are white, Alberto, a 17-year old Latino who has turned in his assignments on time and hovers between a C and D, has begun disrupting the class.

Recently, Alberto began to talk with those around him while the teacher is lecturing or leading a whole-group discussion. Even after Ramirez quietly asked Alberto to stop, he continues these side conversations. On two occasions, she kept Alberto after class for a few minutes to ask if there was something going on to account for his behavior. He said nothing. The next day, he repeated the same behavior during a student presentation and was rude to Ramirez when she asked him to stop. Two other students began smirking and talking to one another while the teacher listened to students give their opinions during a whole-group discussion. Ramirez asked Alberto to leave class for 10 minutes to cool off outside the door and he did. The same thing happened the following day.

Ramirez decided to call home because she feared that she was losing control of Alberto. If this occurred, then it might spread like an infection to the rest of the class. She called his parents and discovered that they speak only Spanish. Since she speaks only English, Ramirez enlisted the help of a Spanish-speaking counselor at school who called home and spoke with the mother. The mother told the counselor that she, too, is having trouble with Alberto, the oldest of her three children and she promised to speak to him.

The next day in biology class, Alberto had another run-in with Ramirez over the same conduct. The teacher called the counselor and mother and they met the following day where it came out that the mother couldn’t control Alberto at home. Ramirez suggested speaking with the father. The mother got very upset because the father works two jobs to support the family and if he finds out about Alberto’s behavior at school and home, the father will beat him as he has done before. The meeting adjourned with no action taken but deep concern over what to do if Alberto causes more trouble in class.

1. Which prized values are in conflict for Ramirez?

2. What are Ramirez’s options in managing this dilemma?

3. Which one should she choose? Why?

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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice

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Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-ed pieces, scholarly articles and books on classroom teaching, history of school reform, how policy gets translated into...