A 2-day PD I was part of last week and some Twitter conversations over the weekend got me thinking about some of the ways we label our students, especially those who require different supports than we might prepare for on a regular basis. Specifically, I was thinking about the word “struggle” as used in education.
When we talk about the struggles encountered with various students of differing abilities, we often use the adjective “struggling” to describe a person, or the verb “struggles” to describe their work. And that person is almost always the student.
“I have a struggling student.”
“One of my students is struggling with their behavior.”
“Several students struggled with this concept.”
Go ahead and Google “struggling students.” You will find page after page of sites that look, at first glance, to be good and useful sites for teachers and parents to find ways to help students.
And on the surface, the use of this language is both accurate and appropriate. But underneath the surface, I would argue it is neither of those things.
Because yes, a student who had a hard time paying attention in class might be struggling with that. They are struggling because they’re trying to improve.
But also, they then become a “Struggling Student,” which is a stone’s throw from “Difficult Student,” which very quickly becomes something that is a problem with the student, and not a problem for us to tackle.
In this profession, however, the problems are ours to navigate, not to be placed on the shoulders of children.
Notice the difference:
“Olivia is struggling with decoding” vs. “I’m struggling with finding ways to help Olivia with her decoding.”
“Mark is struggling with paying attention” vs. “I’m struggling with how to help Mark stay attentive.”
“Brian is struggling” or “Brian is a problem student” or “Brian is a problem” or “Oh, you have Brian? Good luck” vs. “I’m struggling with Brian. I need help with Brian. I don’t know what to do for Brian.”
Imagine one of your students who is not understanding a concept. Needs help with a skill. Is constantly displaying behaviors not appropriate for a classroom.
Where are they going to get help with those concepts/skills/behaviors if not from you? That’s our job. It’s the first 5 letters of our job title. It’s our job to teach them.
If we take it upon ourselves to recognize that it is our job to do these things, then we will be working to help our students with these things.
The reality: we all know this. We’re teachers because this is what we’re called to do. But the other reality: it’s easy to forget. It’s easy to disassociate with some of those tasks. It’s easy to fall into the trap of blaming the student for their deficiencies rather than helping them navigate their way to success. Our words play an important part in that.
Ultimately, the struggle lies with us. It’s our professional job to struggle with the challenges presented by some of our students to find what works for the student. It’s also our professional job to struggle with how to help the student accept what they need to do and put in their work. As I heard Mike Mattos say at a conference a year ago yesterday (thank you, TimeHop), “We have the degrees. We are the professionals.”
It is not our students’ job to struggle. They’re children.
Of course, this is part of the larger picture of the community of a school. If all the students are the students of all the teachers — all “our” students, not “my” students and “your” students — then it’s okay for teachers to struggle. It’s okay because we have each other. We can brainstorm solutions. We can work together for the betterment of our students: all of them together as well as individuals.
So please, join me in the struggle. Let’s struggle together so that our students — our children — don’t have to.
One thought on “On Struggling”
Brian, thank you for this reflection and thinking. I was fortunate to learn with Pam Allyn and she urged us to use striving readers, striving mathematicians instead of struggling. It’s a quite shift in mindset. Striving learners are putting forth great effort. In reality everyone is striving.