Maybe the problem with public schools is that people just aren’t trying hard enough.
There are too many bad students, bad parents, and bad teachers out there.
At least, that’s what the rich folks say.
They sit behind their mahogany desks, light a Cuban cigar with a thousand dollar bill and lament the kind of gumption that got them where they are today just isn’t present in the unwashed masses.
Never mind that they probably inherited their wealth. Never mind that the people they’re passing judgment on are most often poor and black. And never mind that struggling schools are almost always underfunded compared to those in wealthier neighborhoods and thus receive fewer resources and have larger class sizes.
Tax cuts feed the rich and starve the poor, but somehow the wealthy deserve all the breaks while OUR cries are always the fault of our own grumbling stomachs.
As a 15-year veteran teacher in the public school classroom, I can tell you I’ve seen very few people who aren’t trying.
I’ve seen plenty of struggling students but hardly any I’d simply write off as, “bad.” That’s a term I usually reserve for wilted fruit – not human beings.
I’ve seen plenty of parents or guardians striving to do the best with what they have, but few I’d honestly give up on. And I’ve seen lots of teachers endeavoring to do better every day, but hardly any that deserve that negative label.
In fact, if anything, I often see people trying their absolute hardest yet convinced that no matter what they do it won’t be enough.
“It’s not very good.”
That’s what I hear everyday.
Ask most students to share their writing and you’ll get that as preamble.
“I didn’t do a very good job.”
“I can’t do this.”
Something to let you know that you should lower your expectations.
This piece of writing here is not worth your time as teacher, they imply. Why don’t you just ignore it? Ignore me.
But after all this time, I’ve learned a thing or two about student psychology.
I know that they’re really just afraid of being judged.
School probably always contained some level of labeling and sorting, distinguishing the excellent from the excreble. But that used to be a temporary state. You might not have done well today, but it was a step on the journey toward getting better.
However, these days when we allow students to be defined by their standardized test scores, the labels of Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below are semi-permanent.
Students don’t often progress much one way or another. They’re stuck in place with a scarlet letter pinned to their chests, and we’re not even allowed to question what it really means or why we’re forced to assess them this way.
So I hear the cries of learned helplessness more often with each passing year.
And it’s my job to dispel it.
More than teaching new skills, I unteach the million lashes of an uncaring society first.
Then, sometimes, we get to grammar, reading comprehension, spelling and all that academic boogaloo.
“Mr. Singer, I don’t want you to read it. It’s not my best work.”
“Let me ask you something?” I say.
“Did you write it?”
“Then I’m sure it’s excellent.”
And sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes not.
It’s all about trust, having an honest and respectful relationship. If you can’t do that, you can’t teach.
That’s why all this computer-based learning software crap will never adequately replace real live teachers. An avatar – a simulated person in a learning game package – can pretend to be enthusiastic or caring or a multitude of human emotions. But kids are very good at spotting lies, and that’s exactly what this is.
Which would you rather learn from?
When a student reads a piece of their own writing aloud, I always make sure to find something to praise.
Sometimes this is rather challenging. But often it’s not.
Most of my kids come to me because they’ve failed the government-mandated test, their grades didn’t set the world on fire, and/or they have special needs.
But I’ve been privileged to see and hear some of the most marvelous writing to come out of a middle school. Colorful adventures riding insects through a rainbow world, house parties with personal play-lists and famous friends, political discourses on the relative worth of the Roman Empire vs. African culture, and more real life crime dramas than every episode of every variation of Law and Order.
It’s just a matter of showing kids what makes them so special. And giving them the space to discover the exceptional in themselves and each other.
There’s a danger in my profession, though, of becoming bitter.
We’re under so much pressure to fix everything society has done to our children, and document every course of action, all while being shackled to a test-and-punish education policy handed down from lawmakers who don’t know a thing about education. We’re constantly threatened with being fired if test scores don’t improve – even for courses of study we don’t teach, even for kids we don’t have in our classes!
It can make the whole student-teacher relationship adversarial.
You didn’t turn in your homework!? Again! Why are you doing this to me!?
But it’s the wrong attitude. It’s understandable, but it’s wrong.
Every year I have a handful of students who don’t do their work. Or they do very little of it.
Sometimes it’s because they only attend school every third or fourth day. Sometimes it’s because when they are here, they’re high. Sometimes they’re too exhausted to stay awake, they can’t focus on anything for more than 30 seconds, they’re traumatized by violence, sickness or malnutrition. And sometimes they just don’t care.
But I don’t believe any of them are bad students.
Let me define that. They are bad at being students. But they aren’t bad students.
They aren’t doing what I’ve set up for them to demonstrate they’re learning.
They might do so if they altered behavior A, B or C. However, this isn’t happening.
It’s tempting to just blame the student.
They aren’t working hard enough. They lack rigor. They don’t care. They’re an active threat to this year’s teaching evaluation. They’re going to make me look bad.
But I rarely blame the student. Not in my heart.
Let me be clear. I firmly deny the pernicious postulation that teachers are ultimately responsible for their students’ learning.
However, that isn’t to say the student is solely responsible. Their actions are necessary for success, but they aren’t always sufficient.
They’re just children, and most of them are dealing with things that would crush weaker people.
When I was young, I had a fairly stable household. I lived in a good neighborhood. I never suffered from food insecurity. I never experienced gun violence or drug abuse. And my parents were actively involved.
Not to mention the fact that I’m white and didn’t have to deal with all the societal bull crap that gets heaped on students of color. Security never followed my friends and I through the shopping mall. Police never hassled us because of the color of our skin. Moreover, I’m a csis male. Young boys love calling each other gay, but it never really bothered me because I wasn’t. And, as a man, I didn’t really have to worry about someone of an opposite gender twice my size trying to pressure me into sex, double standard gender roles or misogyny – you know, every day life for teenage girls.
So, no. I don’t believe in bad students. I believe in students who are struggling to fulfill their role as students. And I think it’s my job to try to help them out.
I pride myself in frequent success, but you never really know the result of your efforts because you only have these kids in your charge for about a year or two. And even then I will admit to some obvious failures.
If I know I’ve given it my best shot, that’s all I can do.
Which brings me to parents.
You often hear people criticizing parents for the difficulties their children experience.
That kid would do better if her parents cared more about her. She’d have better grades if her parents made sure she did her homework. She’d have less social anxiety if her folks just did A, B or C.
It’s one of those difficult things that’s both absolutely true and complete and total bullshit.
Yes, when you see a struggling student, it’s usually accompanied by some major disruption at home. In my experience, this is true 90% of the time.
However, there are cases where you have stable, committed parents and children who are an absolute mess. But it’s rare.
Children are a reflection of their home lives. When things aren’t going well there, it shows.
Does that mean parents are completely responsible for their children?
Yes and no.
They should do everything they can to help their young ones. And I think most do.
But who am I to sit in judgment over other human beings whose lives I really know nothing about?
Everyone is going through a struggle that no one else is privy to. Often I find my students parents aren’t able to be home as much as they’d like. They’re working two or more minimum wage jobs just to make ends meet. Or they work the night shift. Or they’re grandparents struggling to pick up the slack left by absentee moms and dads. Or they’re foster parents giving all they can to raise a bunch of abused and struggling children. Or they’re dealing with a plethora of their own problems – incarcerations, drugs, crime.
They’re trying. I know they are.
If you believe that most parents truly love their children – and I do believe that – it means they’re trying their best.
That may not be good enough. But it’s not my place to criticize them for that. Nor is it society’s.
Instead we should be offering help. We should have more social programs to help parents meet their responsibilities.
It may feel good to call parents names, but it does no good for the children.
So I don’t believe in bad parents, either. I just believe in parents who are struggling to do their jobs as parents.
And what about people like me – the teachers?
Are we any different?
To a degree – yes.
Students can’t help but be students. They have no choice in the matter. We require them to go to school and (hopefully) learn.
Parents have more choice. No one forced adults to procreate – but given our condemnation of birth control and abortion, we’ve kind of got our fingers on the scale. It’s hard to deny the siren song of sex and – without precautions or alternatives – that often means children.
But becoming a teacher? That’s no accident. It’s purposeful.
You have to go out and choose it.
And I think that’s significant, because no one freely chooses to do something they don’t want to do.
After the first five years, teachers know whether they’re any good at it or not. That’s why so many young teachers leave the profession in that time.
What you’re left with is an overwhelming majority of teachers who really want to teach. And if they’ve stayed that long, they’re probably at least halfway decent at it.
So, no, I don’t really believe in bad teachers either.
Certainly some are better than others. And when it comes to those just entering the profession, all bets are off. But in my experience, anyone who’s lasted is usually pretty okay.
All teachers can use improvement. We can benefit from more training, resources, encouragement, and help. Cutting class size would be particularly useful letting us fully engage all of or students on a more one-on-one basis. Wrap around services would be marvelous, too. More school psychologists, special education teachers, counselors, tutors, mentors, aides, after school programs, etc.
But bad teachers? No.
Most of the time, it’s a fiction, a fantasy.
The myths of the bad student, the bad parent and the bad teacher are connected.
They’re the stories we tell to level the blame. They’re the propaganda spread by the wealthy to stop us from demanding they pay their fair share.
We know something’s wrong with our public school system just as we know something’s wrong with our society.
But instead of criticizing our policies and our leaders, we criticize ourselves.
We’ve been told for so long to pick ourselves up by our own bootstraps, that when we can’t do it, we blame the boots, the straps and the hands that grab them.
We should be blaming the idiots who think you can raise someone up without offering any help.
We should be blaming the plutocrats waging class warfare and presenting us with the bill.
There may be few bad students, parents and teachers out there, but you don’t have to go far to find plenty of the privileged elite who are miserable failures at sharing the burdens of civil society.