Teachers and the Ninety and Nine

I’m haunted by the Biblical story about leaving the ninety and nine sheep safely in the fold to go rescue the one lost sheep:

How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?

And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.  (Matthew 18:12-13)

As a teacher, does this mean that I should ignore the students who are succeeding and more self-sufficient and spend my time trying to “save” struggling students?

Certainly, this is the mainstream philosophy of public education: I had plenty of professors in college who told prospective teachers, “Don’t worry about the smart kids–they can take care of themselves.”  On any campus of which I’ve ever had any substantial knowledge, the number of programs targeting (and the amount of budget invested in) the needs of high achieving students was dwarfed by the gargantuan industry that is remediation, credit retrieval, and discipline, among plenty more.  A case can be made for these priorities; after all, there are (sadly but honestly) far more kids in America today on the left side of the bell curve than on the right. 

However, mere majority shouldn’t dictate our standards.  Might it not better serve the long range interests of our nation by agreeing to raise the bar and fully develop the potential of those with the most of it, rather than focusing almost exclusively on making minimal gains with the very lowest skilled?  How well would any hospital operate (to borrow a metaphor from Walter Williams) if the vast majority of effort was spent on emergency cases nearing terminal status, and letting the stable patients fend for themselves? 

Still, this doesn’t help me in the classroom, for surely the Savior’s injunction means something to me; it must apply somehow. 

I think I’m figuring out a way in which it does. 

Continue reading