To those who are regular readers of my blog, it is no secret that my passion lies in working with students who are considered most “at-risk.” At-risk of poor behavior. At-risk of high truancy rates. At-risk of academic failure. At-risk of being disconnected from school. At-risk of dropping out.
It breaks my heart to see kids, as young as twelve years old, who have already given up on the notion that school could offer them anything worth their time and effort. These are students who, in many instances, deal with crises in the home that far outweigh the gravity, and importance, of any particular mathematics, or language arts lesson. Their failure to do homework, and complete assignments, is often treated as laziness, irresponsibility, or defiance, when in reality it is a symptom of something much more insidious and debilitating.
In less than two week’s time, I have worked with a student who has been separated from siblings, and moved out of their home because a parent was arrested; another student who has not had contact with a parent in jail because the family can not afford to put minutes on a calling card; a student who lives in what most would consider unsanitary conditions and whose parent, during a recent home visit, answered the door inebriated; a child who has missed an inordinate amount of school and was recently removed from their home due to physical abuse; and a student facing such anxiety over the death of a parent that it has manifested in unsafe physical actions at school.
Also, within the past two weeks, we have subjected our students to the excruciating pressure of our state’s standardized testing. Consider for a moment, how the students I described above may have performed on these tests, and whether their results will be an accurate reflection of their learning. Do you think they care? And, in the grand scheme of things, does it even matter?
I honestly don’t feel like those who make policy decisions in our state, or in our country, have a true handle on the real issues, or their severity. Establishing, and sustaining, effective schools involves much more than a concern for curriculum, standards, and effective teaching practice. Those are obviously key considerations, but children in crisis are going to struggle even in the best learning environments. If we are going to have high levels of expectations for these students — which I believe is a moral imperative — then we must also provide a high level of support to meet the needs of the whole child. This is where I believe we are falling painfully short.
Schools have been called upon to meet both the academic, and social-emotional needs of kids. That is an enormous task given the challenges that many students face in their home environment. Some say that the social-emotional, health, and nutritional needs of students should be met by parents, not educators. While in an ideal world, all parents would be involved advocates for their children, proceeding blindly forward as if this was the truth short-changes those kids who simply are not going to receive help unless it is initiated by schools, or outside organizations. I am willing to accept that responsibility, to do everything possible for the best interest of my students, but I am concerned about the direction of some of our educational “reforms” and how they will impact students–especially those at risk. Initiatives that focus solely on content, teacher accountability, and standardized testing as a measure of success reduce the time, resources, and incentives for teachers to reach out to at-risk students, build connections, and spend time developing well-rounded human beings. I struggle to understand how experienced educators, and representatives of organizations like ASCD’s Whole Child Initiative, have so little say in the school reform process.
In all honesty, there have been many times during this school year that I have wondered if I am in the right profession. I have questioned my impact on my school, my staff, and my students. I have been frustrated with the level of distractions, and issues, that I feel take away from my ability to focus on what is most important — my students, and my staff. In fact, those questions have been so significant that I have considered making a change. The one thing that has kept me from leaving is that I truly believe that one person can have a lasting impact on even the most challenging kid. I know there are things that are more important than standardized testing, a grade in science, or a homework assignment.
I recently attended a plaque dedication ceremony for a colleague who, last year, suddenly passed away. This gentlemen ran our district’s alternative school, and in that role, worked with some of the most challenging students in our community. I knew, and admired him, as a person of unwavering integrity. A patient, and unfailing, advocate for students in need. On the plaque that was placed in the school garden, it was mentioned that he was sometimes criticized for not giving up on students – regardless of their circumstances.
I hope there will come a day when someone says that about me — that I never give up on the kids with whom I work. Every child deserves an advocate who will work tirelessly to find the right balance between expectations, and empathy. For some, that may make all the difference.