Monday, May 31, 2010

We Failed.

Today in our Learning Specialist's office one of my students stared a computer trying to make sense of a massive project he is to complete by the end of the school year. Our English teacher and I have combined forces to create the 8th Grade Exit Project, which is supposed to be mandated by the state but isn't actually. Regardless, it's worth 35% of our students' English AND Social Studies grades, which means if they do not do well on it many of them will be sent to summer school.

This young man in particular has been having a rough time with school lately. He's a low-level reader and has scraped by this year because he's worked pretty hard. His home life is less than stellar and his mother is, to be frank, pretty worthless (she came to parent conferences and laughed at the teachers when they said her son's 65's across the board were not good enough- he was passing after all). The student is generally not a behavior problem, but when he slips up there is no support at all whatsoever at home. To say the least, that puts much more pressure on the school to make sure he checks his behavior.

Now, this Exit Project is turning out to be different than much of the rest of this year's work. It appears as though it's a legitimate Exit Project, which means if the students lack the skills to complete it they could fail regardless of how hard they work. This was the wall this young man ran up against today. It became blindingly apparent to him how much he was lacking in academic skills- perhaps never so clear as in that moment.

Our learning specialist spoke to me about it afterward. She was startled as she explained that he simply did not understand what needed to be done with this project. It's always harsh to say that a students simply cannot get something, but this young man has a very real problem with knowledge retention. Throw as much of it at him as you want and it's going to pour out as if through a colander. For this reason our learning specialist pulled him out of the general education classroom and was working with him one on one during this project. It's important to note that this young man is not classified as special ed- mostly because his mother doesn't want him to be classified as such- but probably should be.

In spite of all of her best efforts (which are as a rule very effective with our students), this young man simply did not get what was supposed to happen with the project. When she brought this problem to me my response was such that it was obvious I was aware of this problem, which pushed the discussion further.

If I knew that he performed at such a low level, why hadn't more been done over the course of the year? Our team has a scheduled meeting every Friday devoted to addressing students who need extra support, and this student came up only once in that meeting this year. Granted, we have a whole ton of students who need extra support, but the tendency in those meetings is to talk about the biggest jerks and behavior problems running around the eighth grade instead of those who actually behave, do their jobs and need extra support.

There are several reasons the focus of this meeting can be misguided. First, all of the teachers have an incredible desire to address the behavior problems because if those students are controlled the whole class will run much more smoothly and all of the students will learn more. That desire is not misguided. A common perception, however, is that these students can be easily reformed and when that happens the lower-achieving, moderately well-behaved students being left behind will then receive the support they need. There also seems to be the assumption that the students acting out are doing so because they do not understand the material or do not have the skills to complete it. Because of the latter we talk about the miscreant students during this planned meeting instead of students like the one that is the subject of this post. Therein lies the real problem.

In my short experience, if a student acts out in an extreme way on a very regular basis it is not because he or she lacks the necessary skills. Surely that can add to it, but these students have major issues that are outside of the academics and from what I can tell outside of the ability of regular classroom teachers to address in the two minutes of individual time we have per student on average per day (in the upper grades).

Now, I'm not saying that we should leave the students with behavior problems behind, but the fact that this young man sat in my Learning Specialist's office on the verge of tears because he realized how low-functioning he is and the fact that all of the jerks and knuckle-heads got so much more of our attention this year than him is a damned crime. We failed him. Perhaps the cards and system were stacked up against him, but we're the ones that made the decision to let him go without the large amount of extra support he needed (regardless of whether his mother would allow it to be mandated or not) and instead concentrated on other students who need support we actually cannot give them, but that we are expected to.

But at least his mother's happy, right?

Last year I felt like I failed every student who needed extra help because I spent nearly all of my energy in and outside of the classroom dealing with behavior that should have gotten students removed from my classroom altogether, but did not. By this time last year I was so affected by it I didn't know what to think about my job any more. It seemed like I was the cause of students being left behind and learning next to nothing. I could draw no other conclusions than that my students had just gone through an entire year of their education and because of me (and the fact that they had three bad English teachers in one year), their literacy flat-lined or regressed and they left my class no better than when they entered it.

There's not a lot to say to a new teacher who feels that way. Unfortunately the expectations handed to them and the lack of support given to them leads many to a situation similar to this one. We go into this profession to work hard and to make a difference and the first year is slams you down and at best feels like a wash. All you can do sometimes is move forward with the faith that what people tell you-that the second year is far better- is true. While my team of four and I seems to have failed this student this year, the work we've done this year (two of us are in our second year) is a far cry from the work we did last year. Hopefully next year we'll avoid letting students like this one fall through the cracks by being better organized and focused and by giving those who will benefit from it most of everything we can.

Today's Wine: Charles Shaw Cabernet- I haven't had this in months and its return to the rotation is not without notice. I still think it's solid for what you pay, though of course nothing to write home about necessarily.

1 comment:

  1. Nick- oh my goodness. The truth in this post took my breath away.