Teach the Students You Have- All of Them

Our job is to teach the student we have. Not the ones we would like to have. Not the ones we used to have. Those we have right now. All of them. –Dr. Kevin Maxwell

Who we are and whom we will become is determined by how our most basic human needs are met. Other than oxygen, water, and food, safety is the most basic human need. For some children, the need for a safe environment can only be realized at school in our classrooms. I know this to be true because the seed of the teacher I am today — my beliefs, my skills, my approach — was planted while I was teaching in an inner city school located in one of Ottawa’s roughest areas.

There, the view from my classroom window was sometimes police officers patting down suspects, prostrate on the street below. One day, at dismissal time, I was part of a lock down. The SWAT team, clad in black armour, filled our entryway. A gunman had been reported in the adjacent neighbourhood. This hidden, unsafe underbelly of the nation’s capital was my students’ reality.

In it, school was their safe place. In the classroom, lessons were learned about reading, writing and arithmetic.  After school, the streets taught the hard lessons I could only imagine.

Sometimes, on their return to school, students’ faces showed me that what they needed most was not on my lesson plan. I will never forget those faces.  There was the face of the tiny, blonde-haired boy, whose arm had been broken by his step-father. Fearfully he would hide under classroom desks and tables. A gentle voice and touch were needed to coax him from his hiding place. The precious face of the student from Haiti, who had fallen asleep while reading by candle-light. The candle was knocked over, the house destroyed, and her family lost everything. The young girl, face strained and pained, who was molested by several family members, and who shared her fears about being called to testify. The student who was orphaned in the Congo and now lived with her uncle. When the proper documents were found years later,  I found out she had been a 15-year-old, sitting in my Grade 6 classroom.  Their faces and stories, a hodgepodge of history and adversity, were testaments of resilience and grit.

At times, their faces would haunt me on the drive home from school. They would linger when I shut my eyes at night. They fueled my inner fight, as a teacher, to keep their, and my hope alive.

I remember with fondness and pride, the students I taught for both grade 5 and 6 during my final two years at this school. I was privileged to be their teacher and saw tremendous growth over that time. Within this group, 59% of the learners were exceptional learners. I knew these students well, and despite the level of need in the room, visitors would remark that those needs were not discernible during classroom visits.

In order for these students to be successful, I had to change the way I taught. Since they had limited exposure outside their own community, I could not use the familiar writing tasks I had used with countless other students. Recounts about summer break, birthday parties and family vacations were discarded. Instead, I used prompts about current events and school activities. I began using inquiry tasks to enable success in Mathematics. I scaled down instruction, slowed down the pace, modified lesson components, and adapted my teaching style. Every day I had to be innovative – on the whole, but also, sometimes on the spot. Never,  did I reduce expectations for quality work. In the end, some of my greatest successes as a teacher were with these students.

Now, I fondly remember sitting in my new school when the Grade 6 EQAO data rolled in for this class. I was so proud that my students had far surpassed the provincial and board levels of achievement. Yet, for me, it wasn’t about the test scores. The scores were validation that I had enabled them to succeed in school and more importantly in life.

As I reflect now on these students, I see that their success lay in the school and classroom culture we created. Because of that culture, my students believed in the importance and value of the work. High standards were set and the students became invested in their own learning.

Here, in the part of town where safety was uncertain, I learned that I could influence and impact student learning by creating a safe space, and holding high expectations, regardless of students’ learning needs or the community in which they lived. Student success was about establishing a safe culture of learning. Safe from the lurking dangers outside. Safe to take risks in their learning inside. Within this classroom culture, it was, indeed possible to close the inherent achievement gap. When the students knew that I believed in their ability, and they  believed in themselves,  they were like sponges and absorbed information. They took risks, and went beyond even my own expectations for them.

Student success also resides within the collaboration of staff, parents and support workers. At this school, there were consistent behavioural expectations, common procedures and goals shared across the school. My French partner, Kim Carroll,  and I aligned our Language Arts lessons, using similar processes and graphic organizers in English and French. My ESL teacher, Karen Gravelle, provided support for my ELL and ELD students, some of whom had limited prior exposure to school.  My principal helped to support the behavioural needs of my students with consistent expectations following the Progressive Discipline Model.  While home support may have been fleeting for some students, attempts were made to gain parental involvement. Some parents had endured bad school experiences themselves, while others had been educated outside the country and were unaware of our education system. At the end of the school day there were times when tears, the toll of the job, were met with the comfort of a listening ear. The safety and education of these students was a team effort.

These students required us to know them extensively–their realities and challenges– in order to moderate behaviour, remediate learning, and all the while, attend to their social-emotional needs. This process could be equally enriching as it was tiring, depending on the day.  This kind of daily rigor breeds a different caliber of resilience and determination in a teacher. My teaching today, is living proof of this.

Students with learning issues, stemming from socio-economic disadvantage, or various exceptionalities, are the ones who teach us best. They push us to be better teachers.

Often, when confronted by the learning gaps and the particular mindsets of my students, I am reminded of the self-fulfilling prophecy (Merton, 1948) and how one’s own perception can be so instrumental in determining success. In schools, the self-fulfilling prophecy means that students perform in ways in which teachers expect. Student performance is influenced by subtle and not so subtle messages about ability, intelligence and worth. It is incredibly powerful to expect the most of our students. But, also highlights the detrimental effect that negative mindsets about a student’s ability can have on student success. Often students do not believe they can be successful and do not believe that their hard work can lead to success. As teachers, we need to change that belief.

This year, the achievement gap I seek to fill is one rooted in my students’ learning disabilities. It is a gap created by the discrepancy between the student’s academic achievement and intellectual level. Success of all students begins with the mindset that all students are capable of producing quality work. Persistence, is as much about my own mindset, as it is about theirs. Both my students and I need to believe that they can achieve excellence.

When I flashback again to my days as a teacher in that inner city school, this time I am brought to the OCSB Celebrating Excellence venue. I am seated beside that little blonde-haired boy who once hid under classroom tables. Now a student in my Grade 2 class, he is dressed in khaki pants, a white shirt and a striped tie. Beside him, his mother and siblings proudly fill the seats in the auditorium. This little guy is bursting with pride, squirming in that seat beside me. He is there to receive our school board’s award for displaying one or more of the Gospel values.

Tantrums, defiance and angry outbursts used to fill his school day. However, in the two years since we received him, he has become a different student. Calmer, regulated, and smiley-faced. A credit to the school team, who were determined to not settle for anything but the best for this student. This student flourished in the safe environment of our school.

Our job as educators is to foster safe places in which to teach each student in our care, regardless of the area in which they live, the diagnosis in the report or their proficiency in English. To truly teach each student, we must be that student’s greatest cheerleader; the one who helps them move past the roadblocks, and find their own potential so that we may collectively celebrate each success.  

Let’s help each student find a safe place and reason to celebrate Excellence!

“Show me someone who has done something worthwhile, and I’ll show you someone who has overcome adversity.”  Lou Holtz