I don’t blame Steffon for his distrust issues; after all, he’s bounced around from foster parent to foster parent. I don’t blame Sara for her constant angst and depression; after all, she’s just come out of the closet and receives no support from her parents, who now remind her daily that she’s going to hell. I don’t blame DeAnthony for his shockingly sparse vocabulary; born to a single mom with five other siblings, nobody read to him before he attended school. And I don’t blame Angela for her emotional outbursts–she witnessed her mother get murdered in their trailer several years ago.
These are all real students I’ve had over the years–names have been changed, of course–and at this point, I can only pray that my attempts at guidance have helped add enough academic and life skills to their arsenal to become happy, productive, citizens.
Advising students who carry massive social, academic, and emotional burdens into our classrooms is, at times, an overwhelming task. But as a high school teacher, I’ve got students who will be entering the adult world soon. They need to take responsibility for their own actions. Somehow, they must put their pasts behind them–a difficult task when such struggles are constantly creeping into their rear-view mirrors–and develop perseverance and grit to find success.
At what point should we educators, and society at large, blame young people for failing to overcome hardships and soul-crushing situations at home? At what point should we expect, if ever, developing adolescents to confront their harsh realities and make a decision to take steps to overcome behavioral or academic issues?
I’ve been there, when I could care less that Rayvon is pissed off about his deadbeat father. He had no right to continue disrupting class, seeking attention in all the worst ways. I’ve been there when I’ve gone out of my way to stay after school for tutoring, providing a safe and productive place for students who’d otherwise be up to no good, only to sit at an empty table watching the second hand cycle around and around until packing up my bag and trudging to the faculty parking lot. It’s frustrating, but I won’t stop trying.
It’s often individual educators–and not the system–who attempt to build academic and social bridges for our most needy students. Yet there are other teachers who proclaim that it’s the students job to learn, regardless of background, ignoring situations like those mentioned in my introduction.
Americans love rags to riches stories, and there are enough tales of young people rising up from abusive homes, dilapidated housing projects, and abject poverty to become doctors, lawyers, congressmen, and professional athletes. The exceptions are hardly, the rule, however–all you have to do is examine statistics about cycles of poverty and educational attainment. Nonetheless, the rags to riches narrative holds a vice grip on our consciousness and our educational systems. If he or she can succeed, why can’t you?
Yesterday marked the end of my ninth year teaching public school in and around Louisville, Kentucky. It has been a tremendous journey thus far, and every year I’m constantly reminded of one concept from my teacher education courses: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Progress towards personal and academic growth is derailed when basic needs aren’t met. When so many students come to school hungry, angry, stressed out, and overwhelmed, it’s no wonder that little learning takes place.
It’s not fair that some students carry massive burdens as they trudge from class to class, while other students breeze through private schools and tennis lessons, with the only uncertainty being which college or university they will attend. And right now, many of our schools are not set up to create conditions where most students have a reasonable shot at similar outcomes as their more advantaged peers. It will take a herculean effort.
Do politicians, and Americans in general, have the political will to reimagine school as places where students’ various backgrounds are addressed through alternative curriculums, more social worker access, and other interventions? What is your take? When should students become responsible? Nature vs. nurture–am I emphasizing nurture–or the lack of it– too much when it comes to student development?