This morning I submitted my entry into the Teacher Essay Contest for NBC News Education Nation. Three "winners" will be selected and will be flown to NYC to be a part of the Teacher Town Hall on September 25th. Here is the link to the contest, followed by my essay entry.
The biggest challenge I face as a teacher is students arriving for high school with huge learning gaps. But I do not place the blame on the teachers these students have had while they were attending elementary or middle school. Many of these students have gaps due to things happening in their lives while foundational topics were being covered.
These may include any of the following scenarios or combinations of scenarios:
We have students moving into and out of homes with relatives, group shelters, or a car on the side of a street. We have students taking care of sick brothers and sisters or grandparents. We have students who are really, really hungry. We have students living where partying and all night activities are the norm. We have students with no backpack, paper, or books in their “homes.’ We have parents who want to be supportive but they are pulled in multiple directions with multiple jobs, taking care of family and relatives, or a possible drug or alcohol addiction. We have students who are surrounded by people who have never been to college – there is no role model to show them the way.
I could add a few more scenarios but I want to make the point that students come to 9th grade with a lot of baggage. It’s a wonder they can count to 100 or spell Mississippi with all of the barriers to learning that they have encountered.
One of the really frustrating things, for me, is seeing high school freshmen willing to fail. How should I react when a student tells me “I don’t care,” when I tell him or her that he needs to get his work done so that he can pass the class? Should I respond, “well I don’t care either?” They have seen so many low grades that they don’t think that it is strange to fail. They have already given up hope of being a successful student.
When I transitioned to being a teacher from a career in the military, my father-in-law gave me some sound advice. He said, “You can’t save them all.” What he meant was that you should try and help every student but when one of them refuses the help and falls through the cracks you shouldn’t beat yourself up – if you truly have tried everything.
And so, as I drive home from school each day, I take the time to think about my students. There are the ones who may only be making B’s and C’s but they try hard. They do their work every day, and they are becoming good citizens of the world. Then there are the high achieving students. Am I challenging them enough? Am I encouraging them and giving them praise for their work or am I ignoring them because they always do good work – I’ve got problem kids to worry about!
Finally, there are my low achieving students. One student might be dealing with a pregnancy (theirs or their girlfriends). Another might be going home to a really bad situation every night. And another might be actively involved in a neighborhood gang and all of the potential for trouble that entails.
What about those students who don’t understand the material? What is going on in class that might be causing this? Or worse, what might be going on at home that could be causing this? Am I actively listening to their discussions with their fellow students so I know whether they have any misconceptions? Do I need to pull a student or a group of students in for extra help with a concept? Is there a leader in the class who could do some peer tutoring and when should I schedule that? Do I need to have our master teacher, who is bilingual, call in one of these students for a conference with a parent or guardian because I’m concerned something is going on that is effecting his or her work? What can I add to tomorrow’s lesson, (or to a future lesson), to make class more interesting with real-life problems to solve?
It seems like there are more negative influences on our students, today, than in any other time in my life. Most students are able to overcome these obstacles and they do so without much assistance. Many reach incredible heights of learning in spite of these barriers.
At the beginning of this essay I stated that I had one challenge. However that challenge is a many-headed monster that I must face. I measure my success by how well I am able to help students navigate this maze known as life. One student may periodically get lost and never find the exit. But most will reach the world outside of the maze. And then, I will have succeeded as a teacher.