Since 2004 I’ve taught 4th and 5th grades, middle school, high school, and I’ve been an adjunct professor. I’ve watched, studied, discussed, and reflected on laws and national education policies and practices that seem to change faster than teachers can truly master them. And all with the intention of helping struggling students to finally succeed.
Typically, students who are less successful in school are students such as but not limited to: those for whom English is a second language, don’t have support or stability at home, have some sort of social, emotional, or mental obstacles, or…most commonly…a combination of two or more of the above challenging circumstances.
Over the years I’ve watched these national education policies come and go: No Child Left Behind, Race To The Top, Common Core, Online Learning. Add to those the sea of many ideas, good, bad, or indifferent, that were voted down. In short, complicated doesn’t begin to describe our education system. It has often left me feeling as though we, as teachers, have worked tirelessly, through changing and challenging times, doing a really good job of almost hitting the wrong target.
The ladder that our students are climbing is leaning against the wrong wall. In fact, it’s leaning against the wrong building.
Students (wait, let’s call ’em what they are…our children, our kids) continue to be funneled through these programs with the hope that we’ve adequately prepared them to be an active and responsible part of our society. In truth, we start piling on the curriculum before we’ve ever taught them how to be. How to simply be, and to be able to do that peacefully. We’re using dated building blocks, and we’re stacking them on a foundation that simply isn’t ready to be built on yet.
I have worked with 8th grade students who can’t add and high-schoolers who can’t read. I have worked with students who don’t speak a word of English but have an inconceivable grasp on technology. I have intervened in suicide attempts, and I once worked with a hardened but broken young man who watched his older brother killed, execution style, in his own kitchen. Academically, all of these students, as my colleagues warned in near disbelief, were “So low!”
Recently it hit me, quite by accident, listening to Rita Pierson’s Ted Talk called, “Every kid needs a champion.” Rita is a lovely woman. Listening to her speak is calming, mesmerizing, and inspiring all at once. But in one brief moment…lost in her charming southern accent, I heard her say, “I had a student once who was so low. So low!” But I misheard her. What I heard was,
“I had a student who was solo.”
It was one of those beautifully perfect, rich, organic, teaching/learning moments. But like the accidental but priceless inventions of stainless steel and the microwave oven…it was purely by mistake.
My mistaking what she said has since changed the way I see my students forever. Not just those who struggle, but every single one. Cuz…we all struggle. Don’t we? These kids, our kids, all of ’em…they struggle for a myriad of reasons. Many of our kids are literally solo, going it alone. And if they’re not raising themselves and possibly their younger siblings, they’re surely feeling alone; alone in their language barrier, alone in their fears, ashamed of their dreams and needs and wants, confused about their perspectives and values…but surely feeling alone in their struggles. Feeling solo.
But what if each of our kids was actually given not just an “equal opportunity” but and equitable level of support? What if everyone had what he or she needed in order to achieve their individual best and reach their individual goals and dreams. Not just those struggling with a previously diagnosed and named circumstance…but all of ’em.
I was labeled as “gifted” early into my school years. I use quotes around “gifted,” because if what I had been given was a gift, it came with a price tag. To me, that means it wasn’t really a gift. My “gift,” awareness and curiosity, came with the burden of being empathic which either lead to or was the perfect dance partner to my struggles with depression, an overactive mind, night-terrors, and a deep longing to simply feel loved. I was labeled as “gifted.” I got good grades in the hardest classes. But I felt so alone. Solo. And where would I have been if I felt that I had been lovingly tucked under the wing of a mentor or teacher or coach?
“But…” (and this is a big but…this is a fatal yet unseen and unacknowledged flaw) “He’s doing great Mrs. Blasquez!” That’s all we ever heard. That’s all we heard from teachers, administrators, coaches, etc. I know, I know…how is “doing great” somehow a bad thing? Perhaps I was “doing great.” But was I doing my best? Without hesitation I can say, absolutely not. I couldn’t possibly have been.
Looking back, there is no way that I had even scratched the surface on my potential. Had I spent a quarter of the time I spent emotionally lost in my days actually producing work, achieving, aspiring, trying, failing, my formal education experience (and outcome) would have been quite different.
What more might I have achieved? Ok, forget about just me, but of the 50+ million students who attend public schools in the US annually how many are (or were) given an education that is purposefully designed to get the most out of their unique talents and dreams while helping them navigate their unique hurdles?
For many students who struggle academically, school districts will create unique teaching and learning strategies called IEPs; Individualized Education Plans. A team of counselors, teachers, therapists, and administrators collaborate to make certain that students have access to an education plan designed specifically for them to reach their unique goals while working through their unique obstacles.
But what if I had and IEP when I was in school? What if everyone did? Would I have hit my stride at an earlier age? Would I have walked a different path? Would I, and a team of like-minded people, use what we’d learned to completely overhaul our public education system. Would that, in turn, have resolved the sea of inadequacies and inefficiencies that are so prevalent throughout public education in the uUS? Would I have cured cancer or would I have completely self destructed? I guess we’ll never know.
What if every student had an IEP? What if all of our unique needs were addressed? What if we could help each student overcoming trauma? We could foster social-emotional health, and instilling deep desire, motivation, and purpose. We could leverage nutrition as it was intended rather than as a revenue stream. We could listen, and in the process help students find their calling, their inner voice, and their dreams. Then, working proactively, we could not only help students climb the proverbial ladder, but we could ensure that the ladder is on the right wall to begin with.
We don’t all need to be on the same path. We don’t all have the same passions and dreams. We don’t all need the same skill sets. But since public school started in the US some 415 years ago, we’ve created one model. We’re asking students, all students, to “demonstrate mastery” of all subjects. We’re asking plumbers to bake and bakers to fix a sink. We’re asking performers to crunch numbers and math fanatics to perform. What if we gave every student…every child a hand to hold. What if we walked with her whichever way she wanted to walk. We could let her lead and ask questions. What if she found her passion and we showed her just one path that she can take to get their? What if she fell? What if she thrived? What if she switched paths? What if she felt that what she wanted mattered? What if she felt that who she was mattered? And how might those feelings manifest in her down the road?
Either way, she wouldn’t feel alone.
She wouldn’t be solo.
She wouldn’t be so low.