Thursday, September 06, 2007

Teaching Struggling Students

Thomas Curwen of the Los Angeles Times discusses the everyday hardships of students, and the difficulties such problems present for life inside the classroom:

A friend sent me an e-mail the other day. He teaches third grade at a public school in San Bernardino County, and as he was getting ready for the start of a new year, he found tucked into a folder a note that he had scribbled to himself in the middle of a previous school year.

The words were inspired by one of the more mundane bits of class management, but as he began the work, the reality of the task began to sink in.

"Here I am -- another month of teaching gone by -- contemplating our school's monthly awards: Perfect Attendance, Outstanding Citizen, Outstanding Scholar, Superior Writer, Great Reader. . . [and] all I can think of is: How about an award for Psychological Survivor, Emotional Duress Survivor? In other words, awards for just coping with life."

When my friend wrote his note, he was teaching a class of 30 fifth-graders, and it was easy for the lives of the students, whom he had slowly gotten to know, to overshadow any consideration of monthly achievement. Here are a few of his descriptions:

* A girl who was once locked in a dark closet for eight hours by a baby sitter. The child talked longingly of her dad, who was in prison;

* A girl who was sexually abused at a very young age and taught to steal money from purses at age 2;

* A girl still coping with her grandmother's near-fatal car accident. She brought in newspaper clippings of the accident along with some shaved hair from her grandmother...

Here - and elsewhere, in classrooms across America - some form of psychological trauma in children's lives trumps whatever cards educators and politicians are trying to play. Some of the trauma is the result of poverty, to be sure. In my friend's district, for instance, three-quarters of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and in his note he described gang stories and tales of parental drug abuse and violence.

But poverty is only part of the problem, which is really more about the complicated existences that all children lead. So why do politicians and school boards spend so much time discussing budgets and testing and oversight and accountability?

No doubt they are easier to talk about than the emotional lives of children who are often left to struggle by themselves (or, if they are lucky, with a teacher) through matters of grief, abuse, divorce and special needs. It's no wonder then that so many teachers feel that what they are up against on a daily basis is often ignored.
I would bet that the great majority of teachers - with the exception, perhaps, of those teaching in the most affluent, advantaged neighborhoods - would be able to share similar stories of students' personal hardships and educational challenges.

As a teacher of many students from very diverse and underprivileged backgrounds, I've had students time and again who had been victims of domestic violence, who were recovering from stroke or other debilitating diseases, who had been on welfare with multiple kids and inadequate child care, or those who had tragically lost loved ones to murderous violence in the inner city.

Situations like these are not infrequent, and they make the teaching life stimulating and rewarding, especially when one is able to make a real difference in the life-chances of students.

One thing I noticed about the Curwen article is his reporting avoids pleas for extenuating treatment. Student confessions of hardship are often accompanied by appeals to sympathy. But educational standards must never erode in the face of ever-growing student struggles - in my opinion, at least.

Teachers should make every effort to treat students equally and maintain a rigorous curriculum. Helping students succeed despite their troubles should be paramount. Publicizing and attempting to make available student success resources at the school can help, but in the end, some kids may not be as successful as they might, at least until they can change the life circumstances that make schooling a hard knocks enterprise for them.

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