December 21, 2005

Why do students get “left behind”?

Teachers, administrators, parents, and most importantly, the students themselves all play a role in the life of a child who gets lost in the curriculum, and left behind to fail. (I would suppose that grade school is different than high school, so please understand that I am writing from the perspective of a high school teacher.) After many years in the classroom watching a handful of students each year fail my courses, I’ve come to the conclusion that some students will fail despite the best efforts of their teachers. A student’s success is based on more that simply whether or not the teacher does a “good job” in the classroom.

Teachers are not solely responsible for the failure or success of their students. The same lesson taught by the same teacher in the same classroom during the same hour to two different students will produce different results. What makes the difference? The student. The preparation of the student, whether or not they are prepared for the lesson at hand, and the dedication of the student, their attendance habits and their commitment to their own success make a larger difference than the lesson, teacher, or setting. Assuming this is true, what can a teacher do to ensure the student’s success? Nothing will absolutely work for every student the same way, which is why teaching is both an art and a science.

The teacher’s job is to reach out to and deliver instruction to whatever students appear on their roster. This requires the teacher to be creative in both their personal approach to the classroom and their teaching methodology. Today’s students often refuse to work for teachers they do not trust, or cannot relate to. Once upon a time a teacher could stand at the bully pulpit and preach away. It was the pupil’s responsibility to understand and interpret what they heard. There was little instructor/student interaction and it was not the teacher’s responsibility to change. This is no longer a successful teaching model.

More and more we teachers find ourselves serving as not only instructors in the lives of our students, but also as counselors, friends, and sometimes, substitute parents. The modern instructor/student relationship would be considered irregular and inappropriate 50 years ago. Yet here we are. With so much being asked of teachers it’s easy to understand that we get tired, cranky, and exhausted of juggling so many different roles and responsibilities when all we were “hired” to do was teach. But today’s teachers are more than simply instructors, we are mentors who receive less respect than we deserve and at the same time are asked to raise an entire generation. The parents who should be raising their own children are too busy working 80 hour a week jobs and negotiating custody schedules. But where else are struggling parents to turn for help with their kids? Television? Professional athletes? Other struggling parents?

Teachers do not leave students behind, parents do. However the parents are not the ones held accountable by the government, teachers are. I am not blasting parents, but rather pointing out that when a child falls behind in class it is not because of lack of instruction, but rather because of lack of participation by the student and their family. In my classroom, the only students who fail are those who do not participate either through poor attendance, or through lack of follow-through on assignments (they don’t complete or turn in their work). These students receive very little support at home for either doing their homework or even going to school at all. Parents are too busy to help their kids with homework because they are working to support their child’s education? Or is it to pay off the credit card debt, or the boat loan, or make the alimony payments? Sounds so judgmental. There are plenty of exceptions to what I am describing here. But I have participated in too may Student Study Team meetings with too many parents of struggling kids who are clearly overwhelmed by life and the choices they (the parents) have made. Time for their kids? Not today. So their kids, knowing their parents don’t place them at or even near the top of their personal priority lists react by not placing themselves or their scholastic success at the top of their own personal priority lists. Phone, friends, xbox, getting high, and random silliness all place higher than schoolwork. And so they fail and get left behind.

The current educational environment is focused on making changes in the school day to help aid student success. Teachers and administrators committed to improving test scores and graduation ratios are making progress. But this is not enough. It’s not even the right fight. Until we win the battle at home, the scuffles in the classroom will continue to be ugly bloodbaths where those who would otherwise excel are ignored while those who are in the greatest need are given undo attention. Undo? Well, they do need our help, but so do “our best and brightest.” Aren’t they all “our best and brightest?” They should be. But until students are equally prepared not only at school but at home as well, there will be no equity in achievement. The current belief is that “all can learn, all can achieve.” I support that. However the truth is that not all will learn or achieve at the same level, or at the same pace. If we educators continue to focus all of our resources on compensating for what is not going on at home, then we are failing a different population of our students, and ultimately, our global society.

I am not suggesting that we leave anyone behind. What we need is RADICAL reform and change to our public education system and our societal values. Here in California we have a high population of second language learners, and a high population of students not performing well on their standardized test? Connection? You decide. We need to meet the needs of all of our kids regardless of who they are. But instead of demonizing the teachers for environmental factors outside our realm of influence, we need to look beyond the classroom for support. Changes need to be made in our society that demand that family units stay intact, that kids are a much higher priority, and that education is not a dumping ground full of baby sitters, but an institution for improving all our students, our world, and our futures thats given a fighting chance to leave no one behind.

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