On Struggling

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.

Who should be struggling more: the child who is forced to attend school, or the adult who has 1-3 degrees in this field and chose to do this work?

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.

Your Place Was Empty

In Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, a recurring phrase is “your place was empty.” One of the characters mentions this is a saying in Farsi: jāt khāli-yé. [Note: I am lifting this phrase in English from the ARC of the book, though I can’t imagine it being cut from the final copy]

It is explained in the book that this essentially means “I miss you,” but in a different sense. As if there was a place waiting for someone, and it is empty — and a reminder of their absence — until they are there to fill it.

I was reminded nearly immediately of Pernille Ripp’s welcome poster she wrote about and shared here. “You are just the child we hoped would show up.” I love this for a first day and every day sentiment.

I also was reminded of my 10 years in the classroom, and how I did not have a single year where a student did not join mid-year. And, inevitably, it was an adjustment. We had to catch them up on classroom routines, figure out what of the curriculum they had or hadn’t learned, and make sure there was a spot for them, physically and emotionally.

My students were pretty welcoming, and our room was a place where I think everyone found a home pretty comfortably. But I don’t know that for sure.

What if someone joined our class mid-year, and felt like an outsider the entire rest of the year? What can I do at the start of the year to help prepare my classroom for the student(s) who will be joining us?

I’m not in the classroom this year, but here is what I would do:

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Photo credit: Clker-Free-Vector-Images  https://pixabay.com/en/desk-school-chair-classroom-304189/
  • Always have more chairs than students, no matter our seating arrangement.
  • Make certain the students who are there know that this is intentional. We always want to have a place ready for anyone who may join us: a guest for the day, a visiting teacher or administrator, or a student who is joining our classroom. I want my students to know that it is a privilege and responsibility to sit next to an empty chair, as at any moment, someone might come in to fill that place.
  • Say to any student who joins us: “Your place was empty. We are so glad you’re here to fill it.”

Of course, we would do other things, too, to make sure everyone felt welcome in our room. But I think this would be an easy piece to add that could make a world of difference for helping everyone know they have a place with us.

If you’re in the classroom, what are some things you do to help everyone feel welcome? What do you do to help students who join mid-year feel welcome and part of the group?

Note: though this is a borrowed phrase from Farsi, I would speak it in English, as Farsi is neither my culture nor my language. However, I would explain to the students where the phrase comes from, also highlighting the book where I learned of it in the process.

“Thanks”

This post will be short. Practically a tweet in the blogging world.

But there’s something I’ve been doing, for about 10 years now, and I think I need to share it.

It’s simple, really. But has framed most professional interactions I’ve had for a decade.

I say thank you.

Meeting with a student? End with a thank you.
Meeting with a colleague? End with a thank you.
Meeting with a parent? End with a thank you.

What am I thanking them for, exactly? Their time. Their attention. Their energy. Their ideas. Their willingness to work with me.

Sometimes, the thank you is very natural. Someone is doing something for me, so I thank them.

But sometimes, it’s the exact opposite: I’m doing something for them. And I thank them.

To this point: nobody has thought it weird. Most have probably not noticed. Certainly, there have been times when I haven’t said thank you. I’m not batting 1.000.

And while I like to think it’s helped others have a more positive view of me, that is not very likely. I mean, it’s a throwaway phrase sometimes, so others may not even notice it.

But for me, it’s been a reminder. Every interaction I have, someone is giving me something: their time, their advice, their work. Something. It has helped me be mindful of what others have done for me, in every interaction of every day.

I hope this has helped me better appreciate those around me and better serve those entrusted to my care. I know it certainly hasn’t hurt.

Thanks for reading.

Oh, the Humanity!

Last week, I wrote a post that ended on a low note. A sad note. Some responded and said it was realistic. I think it’s all of this. I do want to take a moment to say that the most extreme examples given were hypotheticals, and fortunately not a reality I’m facing right now. But many of the other examples were real situations from my teaching career.

The notion that sometimes, we act in ways that, from the perspective of some students, appears to disenfranchise students. In ways that actually harms the community we try to build and protect.

I charged myself with writing a post about hope in these situations. Perhaps a post about moving forward.

I don’t know if this post will do that. But I will try.

This week, the President of the United States of America said, referring to undocumented immigrants (and likely specifically MS-13 gang members), “These aren’t people. These are animals.”

The internet, as the internet does, exploded. “He’s calling people animals!” “Are you really defending MS-13?” And what was lost in all the divisiveness was every aspect of humanity: ours, those we disagree with, and yes, the gang members being referred to.

But the truth of the matter is that every human being is a person. While there are reasonable disagreements over when personhood begins and when it ends, I think we can all agree that, at the very least, once a baby is born, they are a person until they are brain dead. There isn’t anything they can do to change that.

To repeat: there isn’t anything we can do to no longer be people.

But this isn’t a morality blog. It’s not a religious blog. It’s an education blog. But for me, those are all wrapped up in each other. Because what I know is that every single human being who comes into my classroom, my school, my community, is a person.

Even those who deny or repress the personhood of others.

That we are people is the thing that truly brings us all together. That is the essence of our communities.

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Photo by DrewMyers – Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License https://farm3.staticflickr.com/2286/2211382500_60061ce422_b.jpg

So. What does that mean when it comes to situations where student groups declare supremacy of race, gender, or sexuality? When students are actively oppressing other students?

It provides us the basis of the conversation. But the conversation cannot go “hey, Student A, you’re dehumanizing Student B, and I can’t allow that.” Ever been told you’re dehumanizing someone? I haven’t, but I can’t imagine it gets taken very well.

The conversations need to start with understanding. “No, I cannot let your group meet on school campus. Yes, I realize you’ll be talking to the administrators. Yes, I understand you want to hire a lawyer and you feel your free speech rights are being trampled upon. But what I really want to know is why you feel so passionately about this cause. Tell me what it means to you.”

Listen. Converse. Humanize the student with whom you disagree. Stand firm in your decision, but talk with them. It’s easy to protect your students from attacks. They’re our babies. But it’s also important to respect and treat as people our students doing the attacking. Because they’re our babies, too. And no matter what, they all have to learn. And all means all.

Now, as I said, these most extreme examples are hypotheticals. So let me make this real.

2016 US Presidential campaign. I had a group of students who would chant, in the middle of class, “Trump! Trump! Trump! Trump!” It was easy for me to have them stop, because it was inappropriate to chant anything in the middle of Statistics class, let alone what had been used as a divisive, racist chant in schools elsewhere.

But I also talked with them. I wanted to know: why did they support Trump? What was the appeal? I wanted to know, but I also wanted to let them know that I hear them. I disagree, and there are things I won’t allow, but I hear them. I see them. I value them as people. So we talked. Mostly, I listened. The chants mostly stopped, and the learning continued.

After the election, a student tossed a word I’d rather not say here around in the hallway. A blend of a political leaning and a slur for someone with a cognitive impairment. The discipline was easy: that’s not an appropriate term to use, and it therefore had consequences. But I talked with the student. I let him know why I felt that term was not okay, and I asked him why he used it. What motivated it? I wanted him to know that I hear him (literally, in this case). There are things I won’t allow, but I hear him. I see him. I value him as a person. We talked. He apologized, and I didn’t hear him use the word again.

I could not do those things were it not for the community that I had spent time and effort building first. But humanizing those I disagree with and those I was disciplining also helped build the community.

So maybe that’s the trick. Maybe that’s the hope in all of this. If we remember we’re all people, we can heal and continue to move forward together.

Asterisk

2 weeks ago, I published a post about the importance of supporting all of our students as they engage in various levels of activism. My rallying cry of the post was that we support all our students, and that all means all.

But, as is often the case, there are exceptions. There are asterisks to catch-all phrases. This post is about that asterisk.

I stand by my words from the first post (I mean, they’re only 2 weeks old; humans change and evolve, but usually not that fast). But I think there’s something that needs addressing that may seem obvious to some, and may not to others.

I gave examples of supporting students regardless of the activist position they were taking. The examples I gave were perhaps loaded with emotion, but also were all of a certain type. The examples were for/against 2nd Amendment/gun owners’ rights and for/against the banning of books.

While there are certainly powerful responses to those topics, and a lot of passion involved, they all are opinions socially acceptable to hold (though certainly each carry their own set of consequences).

So let’s push the issue.

What opinions are no longer socially acceptable to hold? What opinions infringe upon the rights of others? When is holding a particular opinion actually harboring hate speech?

How do these examples fit in the “support the student regardless of their views” thought?

  • A student group opposing the Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage
  • A student group supporting the NRA
  • A student group supporting the building of a wall along the US-Mexican border

Those are all political stances that exist in the US, but carry with them much more weight than the previous examples.

What about these?

  • A student group that declares homosexuality is an abomination and supports gay-to-straight conversion camps
  • A student group that declares the superiority of one race above another
  • A student group supporting Richard Spencer and the rallies he has organized

Do any of these push into the asterisk zone where you cannot support the student because of the opinions they hold?

I cannot answer that question for every individual teacher. But I do know that the last three bullet points would be an absolute deal-breaker for me.

I can be a teacher who supports a trusting community by supporting my students in their opposing views.

However.

I cannot be a teacher who supports students in actions that tear down the very fabric of that trusting community. I do draw a line. I do dwell in that asterisk. When a student supports a message of hate, I can no longer support that student, because hate has no place in a community.

Let me repeat: hate has no place in a community. And it doesn’t matter if the hatred is directed at members of the community or not. Directed hatred cannot be allowed to be a part of the communities we build in our schools.

Most countries have free speech laws. But many countries also have laws that limit that speech when it turns into hatred of others. And regardless of the level of those laws, we have an obligation to support our students and defend our students. When it comes to a point where I have to choose between supporting my students or defending my students against their peers, I will defend them.

And I will also let my students know why I cannot support them. Why I cannot give them space to meet. Why I cannot give them advice on how to get their message out. Why I cannot provide them with any assistance. Why I believe their message is one of hate, and why I believe that has no place in our schools.

Those will be incredibly hard conversations, and those students will likely lose all respect for me, as they very likely disagree. They will feel as though I have failed them. They will feel as though I am a hypocrite. The community will be damaged, and it will not be likely to recover.

I have to stop here. This post is getting too difficult to continue right now. The hardest thing I have encountered as a teacher is when I have been faced with a choice, and all options lead to a fractured classroom community. All options lead to fracturing the thing I value the most for my students. But sometimes, we are faced with just those sorts of choices. I am in tears thinking about it, and I must take time to recharge.

Next Saturday, I will attempt to have a post about hope in these situations, as well as what administrators can do to support their teachers who support their students.

All Means All

Yesterday was the National Day of Silence, a campaign started by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Going back to 1996, this is a day where students take a vow of silence in honor and support of those who feel they cannot safely speak the truth of who they are in terms of their sexuality.

But that’s not what this post is about.

The National Day of Silence is the most recent example, but we don’t have to reach too far back (all of one week) to find another large student-oriented (and, in many cases, student-organized) awareness/activist campaign. In the world of social media, these are much easier for students to organize nationwide. There is also an increased awareness about a lot of things that various students find themselves passionate about and wanting to do something about.

But that’s also not exactly what this post is about.

This post is about our response, as educators, to these sorts of movements and campaigns.

As there are more and more of these student activist events, it is likely that we will find ourselves in varying stages of agreement with them. Some we may fully support, and some we may fully oppose. After all, as humans and as teachers, we should be engaged with the politics of our world, and we all have different political beliefs.

I’m reminded of this quote from Dr. Demond Means, the Superintendent of Mequon-Thiensville School District:

“We made a commitment as educators when we walked into our classrooms for the first time that we will reach every kid in our classroom. We didn’t make a commitment to reach 75% of the students.” [source]

While this quote has often been used to talk about not leaving our students hanging out to dry academically, I think it applies to our students as people, not just as brains. Putting another spin on the quote, we didn’t make a commitment to support 75% of our students. We made a commitment to support all of our students.

As a reminder: all means all.

If we want our students to develop as members of society, we need to support them when they find something they’re passionate about. Even if (and perhaps especially if) the thing they are passionate about, we are equally passionate about, but with an opposing view.

If you have a student who is raising awareness of gun violence, support them.
If you have a student who is raising awareness of 2nd amendment rights, support them.
If you have a student who is protesting the banning of books, support them.
If you have a student who is campaigning to ban a book, support them.

That last one was hard for me to type. I am adamantly opposed to the banning of books. But this is the key, and I want to be sure I am absolutely clear:

It’s not about supporting the message. It’s not about agreeing with the campaign.
You are supporting the student, not the campaign.

We need to support all of our students. We don’t need to share their views. We don’t need to agree with their goals. We do need to show them that they are supported in working for something they believe in. They’re going to meet resistance to their message; they don’t need resistance to their actions from those they have come to rely on for support.

It is impossible for us to divorce ourselves from our politics. However, it is important for us to realize that our job requires us to not allow our politics to suppress the voices of our students. If a student campaign is something we want to support or oppose, we can certainly do that as well, in the same ways that anyone else can and does. But we don’t have an option when it comes to supporting or opposing our students: we must support them.

Our world is more partisan now than it has been in recent memory. Anecdotally, it seems as if those who have any given ideology don’t believe that they could ever work with those who have a different ideology. If all our students can see that they have the support of all their teachers, even if some of those teachers don’t support the politics at play, imagine the world we can be a part of creating. Imagine the community we will have. Imagine as people realize that it’s okay to support someone even as they disagree.

We need to support our students as they engage in the political process. All students. All means all. No exceptions.

And I know: this is HARD. WORK. It’s arguably easier to help a student who hasn’t read a book in their entire life become an avid reader than it is to support a student in a campaign that we are completely opposed to. The important work is rarely easy. It doesn’t make it any less important.

Note: this is the first post in a planned series. Subsequent posts will explore the nuance of these situations and how to engage in that nuance with students, as well as from the administrator perspective.

Student Teaching Lessons

In the late fall of 2006, I was elated to receive my placement for student teaching the following semester. I was a double-major in English and math, and my university required a diversity of classroom experiences–and there were some I had yet to successfully complete. I figured with those restrictions, I would be splitting time between classrooms (or schools or even districts), or have something that was far from my parents’ house, where I was hoping to live for the semester.

But that’s before I knew the teacher I would be placed with existed.

This teacher was a middle school math and English teacher in a school about 30 minutes from my parents’ house. His classroom satisfied the remaining requirements I needed to graduate from my university’s secondary education program.

It was, to put it lightly, one of the best experiences of my life.

I was able to practice various lessons out, get honest and constructive feedback regularly, try out some things, and basically run a classroom with all the scaffolds and supports I needed as a neophyte teacher.

What I didn’t realize until just recently is how strong his impact is on me when it comes to relationship-building. This teacher is a Milken Award-winning teacher, and I assumed that was because he knew both his content and how to deliver it masterfully (both of which are true).

What I realize now is that he is the teacher he is because he knows those things, but more so because he knows his students.

Here are some things I learned during the winter of 2007, complete with annotations of what I thought they meant and what they really mean.

EMP Awards

End of Marking Period Awards were his version of a paper plate award. Essentially, he would give out unique awards with names that match each students’ unique contributions to the classroom. He gives them out at the end of each marking period: 4 times a year. He maintained a spreadsheet of who received awards at each quarter, to ensure that everyone received at least one and nobody received more than 2.

What I Thought
I thought this was a great way to engage the students on a day that was otherwise a difficult one to manage.
I thought this was a way to celebrate each student for the unique person they are.
I thought this was a way to make sure everyone felt loved and celebrated.

What I Now Realize
It is all of those things. But to have it be those things…to have each student feel celebrated for who they are as an individual, it requires the teacher to see each student as an individual. It would be impossible to give out these awards without knowing the students on a level beyond their academic successes and failures. It forced him to see his students as individuals, and for the gifts and talents each of them had.

Speaking Spanish

This teacher had a decent grasp of Spanish, and would casually pepper his class with Spanish words and phrases.

What I Thought
I thought this was a great way to support the foreign language department as well as promote the use of Spanish. An easy cross-curricular support.

What I Now Realize
There were very few English Language Learners in his classes. However, there was a great diversity of culture, and many of the students spoke more than one language. Arabic, in particular, was quite popular. While this teacher didn’t know Arabic, by speaking another language, it showed the benefit of having more than one language to speak, thereby validating those who did speak multiple languages. It reinforced the idea that multiculturalism is important, making everyone likely more comfortable with the diversity of culture in their classroom and in their lives.

Playing the Accordion

 

Yes, you read that correctly. One of my most vivid memories of student teaching was when my brother was a guest speaker to talk about his role in the business world, for a jobs and careers unit we were doing. My brother quoted The Rolling Stones, saying, “You can’t always get what you want.” The principal, also in the room, starting singing the song, encouraging the students (none of whom knew the song) to join in. Then the teacher whipped out his accordion, and we had an awkward and awesome sing-along for about 10 seconds. It is, to this day, the most surreal teaching moment I’ve had.

That said, this was a relatively common enough practice that nobody (aside from perhaps my brother) was taken aback when the classroom teacher pulled out his accordion.

What I Thought
I thought this was a chance to relieve some pressure and intensity through music, and in an unexpected way that 7th and 8th graders seem to love.

What I Now Realize
The piece I didn’t mention above is that he also played the accordion for every student’s birthday. So every student had a day where they had this really interesting experience of being sung to with accordion accompaniment. It was a way to celebrate the community and the birthdays being celebrated, but it also provided stories for the students to connect with years later. I mean, how many students can say their 8th grade English teacher would play accordion during class?

Pennants on the Ceiling

On the ceiling of his classroom were university pennants. These were either purchased by him or given as gifts from former students and colleagues. I made sure to get a Central Michigan University pennant up there before my time was done.

What I Thought
I asked him about this, and he said he wanted his room to be so distracting that if everything was a distraction, nothing was. He had found this actually helped his students focus on the lesson at hand. I was surprised by this, but I found it to be be the case (the engaging lessons he had probably also played a massive role).

What I Now Realize
I didn’t think anything of the “gifts by former students” thing at the time. But this is a middle school. Grades 6, 7, and 8. If former students are coming by, it’s probably those still in the building, or picking up younger siblings. But these were college students coming back to his room. There was an ever-present facet of community built in to the classroom itself. If you were a part of that room, you could literally be a part of the room, if you came back and gave a pennant. People don’t do that with places they don’t feel are a part of them. They don’t do that if they didn’t feel like they were accepted and belonged. They don’t do that if they forget about that place after a few years.

His ceiling was covered with pennants.

All these lessons, tucked in the back of my mind for years, only now rising to the surface. Thank you for all the lessons you taught me, explicit and implicit. I can only hope I have created a fraction of the community in my classrooms that you have had in yours.