I believe the challenges for struggling students are multi-faceted, hard to pinpoint, and can’t be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution. However, I do believe teachers are oftentimes at fault for perpetuating the problem.
My job as a teacher is to educate. What does that mean, though? I’ve had dozens of conversations over the years – at multiple schools and districts – about what it is we actually teach. Are we, as teachers, responsible for teaching responsibility, time management, consequences for selected behaviors, morality, citizenship, real world realities, fortitude? Or is a teacher’s job to teach a curriculum and ensure children can show proficiency in that subject? Or are teachers responsible for both? Teachers have philosophies that run deep in the core of who they are. I’m not sure an answer exists to meet the needs of every child or every teacher. Nor do I believe we need to create one. What I do know is how I run my own classroom.
Let me go back to my earlier bold statement: teachers are oftentimes at fault for perpetuating the problem.
I’m not suggesting a teacher maliciously targets, fails or sabotages students. I will argue, however, teachers may lose sight of what I feel is our ultimate responsibility as teachers – to help children find success through differentiated instruction, intervention, individual plans for special circumstances, compassion, equity and fairness for all students based on their needs, and a focus on the course content.
Let’s take a look at a sample student to see how this plays out. Let’s call him Bob – because I’ve never had one in class. Bob’s story:
- unstable family life
- living in a middle-class neighborhood
- mixed race (Caucasian/Hispanic), but speaks English as a first language in the home
- performs at Proficiency in standardized tests
- struggled to pass English in seventh and eighth grade, ultimately pulling a D all four semesters
Bob is capable, but struggling. As his teacher, unless he opens up to tell me why he struggles, all I can do is manage what happens in the classroom. Approaching the end of the first semester of ninth grade, it appears he won’t pass. This could be devastating for him. Students need to pass four full years of English to graduate high school. Projected out a couple years, he could potentially fail multiple semesters of English before his senior year, leaving him without enough time or summers to make up the credits and graduate high school; hence, he doesn't graduate. That is unless we work with him early to help him find success.
As a school team, we intervene. I re-evaluate his performance. I not suggesting I change his grades; I re-evaluate his performance.
- Does he turn in his homework? No
- Does he complete in-class work? Yes
- Does he perform at grade-level on quizzes and tests? Yes
- Have I been able to assessment him through oral, formative activities? Yes
Upon closer look, what I discover is that his homework grade is creating the biggest problem. Then I ask myself, Is he proficient in English and able to demonstrate that proficiency to justify a passing grade?
But it’s hard to imagine passing a student who earns an F in any class. So how do I “re-evaluate”? I look back at his homework grade. Turns out he’s only turned in only 20% of his homework. Not great, but each item turned in was an A. Regardless his performance, with the number of missing homework assignments included in his semester grade, he is earning an F.
So what’s a teacher to do? I had to go back to my philosophy. I want a grade to reflect a student’s proficiency or mastery of the content knowledge. Ultimately, isn’t this what a college wants to know?
I make accommodations for Bob. In the end, he is responsible for passing the semester final with a 70% to show he understands the material. He does, and he passes the first semester of ninth grade English with only a 49% in the gradebook.
Bob is now on track for graduation; he isn’t spending the next year trying to dig himself out of a hole he created for himself when he was only 14. That’s the part I continue to remind myself of … he’s just a kid. I WILL NOT let a 14-year-old child make decisions that will determine his future as an adult. I am the adult. I will cajole, push, encourage, accommodate, nurture and do whatever I can to champion a child.
This year he is in tenth grade and thriving. He is turning in more work, has figured out how to manage his home life, has become more organized, feels capable and is finding success. He’s also on the road to graduation and college. Did I have to change a grade? No. Did I have to lower my standards? No. In the end did I help teach responsibility, time management, consequences, morality, citizenship, real world realities, fortitude? I will argue “Yes.”
But you know the most important thing I taught him?
In the end, ask yourself … are students really failing or are we failing our students?