Friday, May 3, 2019

I Haven’t Tried Everything Yet

As I have crossed the halfway-point of my teaching career, I find that I am still, and perhaps more so than ever before, reflecting and readjusting my teaching methods. Each year of the last 17, I have identified an area of focus for that academic year. This year my focus has been this: When my students fail, what can I do about it? What can I change or adjust in my teaching practices to meet the needs of my students?

The secondary education system in the United States is flawed, no doubt. Its foundation is a platform on which the US has stood for generations: We teach ALL children. But do we? We certainly allow all children to access the classroom setting. We create environments where they are welcome if they have an identified disability, and we create many alternatives for learners who show “significant” delays and deficits “as compared to their peers” (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).

What do we do for the student without an identified disability? What becomes of the marginalized student who never turns in her homework? He leaves class frequently, and he rarely, if ever, participates in class activities. She never asks for help, and she won’t accept help when it’s offered. He puts his head down as soon as he gets to class. Her attendance is so poor, the school has filed truancy procedures with the court. How long must we try to squeeze these square pegs into round holes?

As a co-leader of the Intervention Team at my school, I have found there are so many barriers to actually helping students, that I feel the team has become ineffectual. We spend at least an hour weekly discussing the specific students who are failing in our building. We filter out students who are in special education, alternative education, and other minor interventions available in our building. We do this because these students are already receiving the help we think they need. So our list of 125 failing students out of 500 total students in grades nine through 12 is whittled down to 20 to 30 students each week who are failing three or more classes, and who are not receiving an identified intervention. After much data collection over the course of the last two years, we have found that these students share one common trait: their ACE score is greater than four.

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is the term used to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under the age of 18 (our students). These ACEs have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, early death, and, you guessed it, poor performance in high school and post-high school programs. (You read that right, “early death”!!) An ACE score of four or more does not mean that a child will experience poor outcomes. However, children’s positive experiences or protective factors can prevent children from experiencing adversity and can protect against many of the negative health and life outcomes even after adversity has occurred. (

What was that? Protective factors? Positive experiences? These are things I can do! I cannot keep a parent from verbally assaulting their child. I cannot protect a child from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse outside of my school. I cannot take them all home. (Believe me, I’ve tried.) However, I can do something. I haven’t tried everything.

In 2018, the Hechinger Report released a commentary on two studies on the power of healthy relationships between teachers and students. The studies found that students who develop a stronger bond with their teacher tend to score higher on tests. The studies focused on the looping that happens in elementary classrooms. Looping is when a teacher follows their students from one grade to the next (for example: teaching the same students in both 2nd and 3rd grades). The research suggests that when people know each other well, it’s a better classroom environment for learning.

As a special education teacher, I am blessed with the opportunity to follow my students for four years. I see some of my students everyday over the course of their high school careers. I strive to be more than just a teacher for them. I hope I’m an advocate, listener, counselor, mentor, cheerleader, coach, mom, snack and meal provider, pencil supplier, and more. It is this opportunity that allows me to build relationships with my students that my general education counterparts don’t necessarily share.

Or do they? When freshman enter my classroom, it doesn’t take me the entire year to build a relationship with them. It takes only a few weeks (give or take, depending on the kid). I would argue that some of my general education colleagues are better at building relationships with their students than I am. Often, it is in their nature to be kind, compassionate, and generous with their time. These colleagues are the ones who are spending countless hours volunteering their time after school to help kids in many of the same ways I do in my special education classroom. They are noticing when one of their students needs something different or more. They are connecting with them beyond the classroom as coaches and club sponsors. These teachers and support staff are making themselves available to students beyond their content.

I have heard various complaints from my colleagues about students over the years: 
  • They’re so disorganized. 
  • They don’t care enough to put their names on their work.
  • They don’t follow directions. 
  • They are so distracted by technology. 
  • They just don’t care about their grades. 
  • I’ve tried everything, and I can’t do it for them. 
  • I’m not going to work harder than they are. 
  • We are preparing them for their future, so they need to know how to take notes, how to meet deadlines, how to follow directions…

I have heard the last one so many times, I feel if I’m not careful, I might start believing it myself. It’s partly true. We are preparing students for their futures, yes. The word preparing means it’s a process, and we have four years to get them there. We should not expect a freshman to have the same preparedness as a senior. Not only have they never been in high school before, but they are 14 and 15 years old. Can you remember what it was like to be 14? We were all once pimply-faced, hormone-driven, braces-wearing, goofballs! Their silly little brains won’t be fully developed until they are at least 25, and we are expecting this underdeveloped group of teenage boneheads to be prepared on day one?

Since when did teaching in high school exclude classroom management? Why is it that a kindergarten teacher can get 25 5-year-olds to respond to her in unison, and put away their materials on command, but a high school teacher cannot get a 14-year-old to put his name on his paper? This paradox is not lost on me. It’s called “Direct Instruction.”

In 2015, the National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI) published an article by Jean Stockard, PhD summarizing over 50 years of research on the process of Direct Instruction. Her findings included this statement: “Effective instruction is logical in nature, carefully organized and formulated, building on students’ previous learning in an unambiguous and cumulative manner. Seeing learning as a cumulative process, mastery of the first element in a learning series helps students more easily master subsequent steps. The result is more efficient and more effective learning.”

Preach it sister! Dr. Stockard is speaking my love language. Her evidence suggests that children learn best when it is unambiguous and cumulative. What does that mean? It means we should be clear about our expectations, and we should make sure they master the basic skills before moving on to more complex skills. This is relevant in all learning. It is relevant in learning to ride a bike, in learning to research, and in learning to raise my hand before I am called upon. So often in my colleagues’ high school classrooms, they are so focused on the importance of their content, that they don’t spend the time teaching students the importance of these academic skills. “Those are the skills they should have learned in middle school,” but the problem is, they haven’t mastered them. It is our job to continue to teach them those skills as well as our content. As teachers, we should not behave as if we are islands of information that must be disseminated to the others, but instead we are an orchestra with each piece supporting and encouraging the other. Each part of this vast array of instruments plays its part. Sometimes one part is louder than the other, but it is constantly changing and adapting, and making way for other parts to speak up and be heard.

So how do ACEs fit into all of this? When I was first trained on this concept, someone said this: Instead of thinking, “What’s wrong with this kid,” try thinking, “What’s happened to him?” For me, this was an incredible shift in my thinking. By changing my question to “What’s happened to them?” I change my perspective on the root cause of their struggle. Whatever they are doing, or not doing, it is a symptom of a larger problem. Sometimes that root problem is not solvable by me. However, I can change how I address these students. I can actively, and deliberately teach them in ways that are more compassionate. Kindness goes a long way. Frances E. Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, has studied the teenage brain in great depth. Her findings demonstrate how fragile, and yet how receptive the teenage brain is. She said (in reference to the teenage years), “It’s also the time when you can get the best results from remediation, special help, for learning and emotional issues.”

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Bloom's Taxonomy
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a concept developed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 that has long been used to understand trauma, and human response to basic needs. It was developed as a psychological theory composed of a five-tier model depicting human needs. The needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before the higher levels can be accessed. Similarly, Bloom’s Taxonomy was developed to depict the process of student learning. Bloom’s Taxonomy, created by Benjamin Bloom in 1956, is a hierarchical ordering of cognitive skills that can, among other countless uses, help teachers and students learn.

The reality of both of these theories, is that Bloom’s cannot happen without Maslow’s. No learning happens if a student’s basic needs are not met. Some of the most important basic needs for a teenager are safety and security, which includes important, safe relationships. Of all the things I can be for a student, a safe adult is the most important. One of my most prized talents, is that I can get a student to do something he otherwise wouldn’t do just by saying, “Would you do it for me?” Because we have developed a safe, and trusting relationship, he is willing to try things in a setting in which he has rarely felt successful. It is my responsibility to help my students cross the finish line. Sometimes that looks more like dragging, but it is still my responsibility. In the end, if they have failed, I have failed.

The responsibility is not all mine. There are countless other influences on these children outside of mine, most of which are out of my control. While they are in my classroom, however, I will always work to improve relationships and help them remember how much they are valued. I will reteach, redo, and reassess children in a million different ways in order for them to learn. I will work harder than they will, because I am the professional, and that’s my job. I will provide them with another pencil (and another, and another), and I will give them another chance. I will stay after school again, and again, and I will work with them during lunch. I will never give up on them, even after they’ve given up on themselves. There is always something I can do, and always something I have yet to try. I haven’t tried everything… yet.