What might be preventing students from learning in school?

At the San Diego Equity Symposium, I got to hear Liz Murray tell her story about growing up homeless to graduating from Harvard. Through her incredible life story, she highlighted that the experience of an individual isn’t black and white. She shared many struggles but also the love she had for her family. It is easy to put people in a box- “low performing” “low socioeconomic status (SES)”, “Gifted”, language learner and so many other labels and categories that we use in education do not tell the story of the kids in our classes.  There are good and bad that coexist, there are strengths and opportunities that exist alongside great challenges.

Liz shared a specific story of how a researcher tried to convince her that she had suppressed her anger because she chooses to not to blame her parents. After listening to him and his research. she responded, “You can read and research anything you want but it doesn’t replace my experience.”  Her point, that is important for all educators, was that just because the trends in research tell us that groups of people tend to act a certain way or experiences will impact us in a certain way, or even that specific strategies are better for learners, there is no substitute for getting to really know people and all their complexities to determine the best way forward.  We can learn so much by trying to see the world through our student’s eyes and understanding who they are and who they want to be.  

We can’t assume that we know individuals or understand their experiences because we have read the research or they fit into a specific category. The truth is we all belong to many categories and have vast experiences and circumstances that make us unique. We are consumed with grades, test scores, and data but we have to remember that they don’t tell the whole story, and they rarely inspire learners to wonder, create and do work that is meaningful and relevant to them and of service to others. To go beyond labels, and to cultivate a sense of belonging and purpose, we must create the opportunities to get to know learners, their passions, their challenges, and their goals.

Here are 4 things that are important to consider as you get to know those you serve this year. 1) check your assumptions, 2) ask questions, 3) believe in them and 4) meet them where they are. 

Check your assumptions

Our brains make generalizations to make sense of the world but when you want to build relationships and get to know individuals you have to be careful with this and check your assumptions. Sometimes it is simply assuming you know one student because you had their older sibling or know the family.  Too often, we judge people by how they look, how they talk.  When we have data, we can falsely assume they tell the story of an individual. When students don’t do homework, act out, or are apathetic in class, we can assume they don’t care.  Even from well-intentioned educators, I still hear too often, those are the “bad kids” or “these kids don’t care.” Instead of assuming that students don’t want to learn, could we ask, What might be preventing students from learning in school?

Ask more questions

I know it is fairly common practice, and expected in many cases, that teachers review the syllabus and the rules at the beginning of the year, they focus on assessing students and collecting and reviewing data.  If getting to know the learner’s strengths and challenges is the goal, I would argue that sometimes the most valuable data you can gather is through actual input from students. Seeking to understand others begins with asking questions. Beyond asking, we need to make sure we are listening to truly understand the complexities that make up the stories to understand the experience of those we serve. Here are some questions I suggested in a post, Why we should stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. These would also be great questions for administrators to ask teachers.

  • What are interested in?
  • What do you love to do?
  • What makes you happy?
  • When do you feel like you are successful?
  • How do you like to work/play with others?
  • What do you want to learn more about?
  • What is important to you?
  • What makes it hard to learn/ do you work?

To add to these, here are some great questions from Pernille Ripp to ask families and guardians, too.

Beyond asking the questions, fostering relationships among the community is also powerful. Create opportunities for students to ask each other questions, ask you questions, ask the community. We make a lot of assumptions about what others want and most of the time it’s just better to ask.

Believe in Them

If we really want to create learning environments in our schools where all learners are valued and seen as capable of achieving desired outcomes, we have to begin with the belief that they can.  When we believe that people can do something we act in a way that makes that outcome more likely. We need to believe in our students and help them to believe in themselves and see what is possible.

Meet them where they are

It’s important to have high expectations but you also have to recognize that people will need a variety of supports to get there.  Having taught middle school, I have heard every excuse and quirky young adolescent drama possible.  I would love to say that all changes as we grow up but having taught many graduate classes for teachers, I have yet to have a semester where I didn’t have multiple teachers turn in work late, they often need accommodations, were late for class or struggled with assignments.  I always try my best to meet them where they are and support them to meet the expectations. I know some of these same teachers demanded homework on time and didn’t allow students to make up or revise work.

Think about how often we hold kids to expectations that we can’t always meet as adults. Life can be challenging and you never know what is happening in someone’s life and how powerful of an impact you can make by empathizing with their situation and showing them some grace.  If they need a paper or pencil, why not just give it to them. If they need more help, more time, or just someone to talk to, consider the impact you can make by meeting them where they are.  Hopefully, someone will do it for you when you need it, too.

Liz reminded us during her talk, that our actions, our interactions or lack of them, matter every day. You always make a difference.  It’s up to you to decide if it’s a positive or negative.

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