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Posted at 9:15 PM ET, 12/29/2010

Teaching students who won't struggle

By Jennifer Martin, Bethesda

In “Slapped with the label ‘lowest achieving,’ a high school turns a crisis into a challenge” [Metro, Dec. 27], those describing efforts by Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School to improve student achievement misstated the problem when they said that low-performing students “struggle” to learn. For the low-performing students I teach at Rockville’s Wootton High School, I strive each day to motivate them to overcome their own self-defeating passivity. I’m the one who is struggling.

Such students come late to class (if they show up), avoid eye contact and sit as far from the instructor as possible. They take their time getting settled, balk at instructions, lose materials, ignore homework and miss appointments for extra help. Most important, they remain sullenly disengaged during academic classroom activities.

My three biggest challenges are to get my low-performing students to believe in the empowerment that education provides, to trust me to be working in their best interest and to help them recognize their own potential. Then, when they do truly struggle, I can make sure they succeed.

By Jennifer Martin, Bethesda  | December 29, 2010; 9:15 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Virginia, education, schools  
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Comments

You sound like the kind of teacher my late father, a High School Principal for 25 years, would have been happy to have on his staff.

Posted by: PCFerret | December 29, 2010 11:49 PM | Report abuse

I took early retirement from a college teaching career after years of wrestling unsuccessfully with just the kind of students you describe. Truthfully, I have been much happier since retiring.

Posted by: reggerman1 | December 30, 2010 7:38 AM | Report abuse

No one wants to admit that some kids are lazy, apathetic, and stupid. Instead we get cynical politicians passing laws like "No Child Left Behind." You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.

Posted by: Orion838 | December 30, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps they are struggling because they have always struggled and as teenagers, they are feeling hopeless. Perhaps they don't buy into the "testing" culture. Perhaps they don't see themselves reflected in the curriculum or in the teachers. Perhaps they don't all want to go to college. Perhaps the current paradigm feels irrelevant to them. How can we possibly write off an entire population? Is that what education is? Perhaps they are smart enough to want to jump off of the cookie cutter conveyor belt of education.

Posted by: lk11 | December 30, 2010 8:46 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps they are struggling because they have always struggled and as teenagers, they are feeling hopeless. Perhaps they don't buy into the "testing" culture. Perhaps they don't see themselves reflected in the curriculum or in the teachers. Perhaps they don't all want to go to college. Perhaps the current paradigm feels irrelevant to them. How can we possibly write off an entire population? Is that what education is? Perhaps they are smart enough to want to jump off of the cookie cutter conveyor belt of education.

Posted by: lk11 | December 30, 2010 8:50 AM | Report abuse

Well said lk11. I was really disappointed when I read this letter. Perhaps, if this teacher didn't make this all about her, she would really see that it must be difficult for students to catch up who have been left behind for so many years. It's difficult for students to believe in education when this system has failed them year after year. More importantly, it's almost impossible to get students to believe in the dream of college when they know that they have little chance of affording it.

Lastly, most kids who struggle like this have so little support at home. It would be nice if teachers try to understand their lives instead of expecting the students to understand how much the teachers are struggling.

Posted by: wmwilliams14 | December 30, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

They are emulating thier parents and these kids are not uncommon in high income suburbs either. America has become a nation of adults and children expecting instant gratification. You see it everywhere and not everything is achievable instantly. You read letters and comments on any subject expressing the same shallow expectations. It does not bode well for America.

Posted by: withersb | December 30, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if wmwilliams14 is or was a teacher. If so, he/she would understand that the challenges mentioned in the letter don't represent a lack of understanding on the teacher's part. I understood, I counseled, I tried everything I could think of to help my students. Sometimes it worked; often it didn't. Teacher's can't be held accountable for everything wrong in our schools. Parents and society as a whole must take some of the blame. Do you hold a doctor accountable when a patient doesn't take required medication? Do you hold lawyers accountable when clients don't follow legal advice? Teachers can only do so much. In middle/high school, a teacher only has a student for 45 to 55 minutes in a class of anywhere from 25 to 35 (or more) other students. Often the time spent dealing with the chronically truant/tardy/disruptive student takes away valuable teaching time from those students who want to succeed.

No one mentions that private or charter schools, so put on pedestals by movies like Waiting for Superman, do not have to accept or keep these students. They can require such things as behavior contracts and promises of parent involvement. Just the fact that a parent cares enough to try to get their child in a private or charter schools demonstrates a level of parental involvement that improves a student's chances of success.

Please remember that public schools take all students and have little recourse when dealing with the previously mentioned truant/tardy/disruptive/defiant students. In my experience, the parents of these students don't care about their children's grades, do not want to be "bothered" by teacher's phone calls, and generally don't show up for parent/teacher conferences. I stayed after school offering help to students, and even though my car was usually the last one left in the parking lot, very few students took advantage of the offer. Sometimes, I would even go onto the basketball courts and "hijack" one or two, but the effort, counseling, and, yes, even tears didn't make much difference. So, unless you've walked in our shoes, don't point fingers at good teachers who are doing their best in situations that would drive most to despair.

Posted by: retiredteacher4 | December 30, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Kids like that will grow to be losers, there's no point in even wasting your energy trying to teach them.

Ms. Martin, do something else with your life.

Posted by: kenk33 | December 30, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Its parenting and parental rolemodels that are the issue. Parents these days, especially from certain groups that vote liberal, expect the government to do all the parenting for them. My parents, not once in my entire life ever told me to "do your homework". They didn't have to. I realized from just observation that my parents obviously were serious students to get the degrees to get them where they were. Without even saying a word, I realized I would have to do the same to get a similar sort of lifestyle.

Posted by: scoran | December 30, 2010 11:39 AM | Report abuse

Research has shown that immediate rewards do wonders for engagement. They make the long-run payoffs immediate. And, when efforts slacks, the decrease in rewards quickly makes evident the consequences in the form of a "'lowered standard of living."

Build the set of skills and competencies with benefit of extrinsic rewards so that regular classroom learning can occur and yes, some learning for its own sake can begin to occur.


Posted by: jimb | December 30, 2010 12:23 PM | Report abuse

You gotta remember many of these kids come from a culture of violence. For example, most of these kids don't think Michael Vick did anything wrong. because in their culture electrocuting dogs who don't win a fight is okay.

Posted by: john_bruckner | December 30, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

retiredteacher4, No. I have not been a teacher in public schools. I have worked with many teachers while my daughter went to a public school in Virginia. What I've learned is that there are good teachers and there are bad ones.

While I sympathize with teachers who have a very tough job for little pay, I felt that this teacher had little sympathy for the kids who have constantly fallen through the cracks in the school system. To me, her letter made it seem more about her and her struggle then the struggle of the kids she is supposed to lead. I realize that teachers can't be parents, counselors, disciplinarians and everything else society puts on them. I just wanted this teacher to imagine what the kids are going through and walk a mile in their shoes. For many kids it's hard to focus when you are worrying about if you have food, or if you have a roof over your head or if your parents will be there when you get home. It's tough on both sides.

Posted by: wmwilliams14 | December 30, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

Allow me to address the elephant in the room - brown kids who would rather thug than thrive.

May I point out that there has always been and will always be an underclass of humans who do not have the ability to engage as citizens of whatever society they find themselves contained?

The bell curve touches the null axis on two sides for a reason - not all are destined to be worth a tinker's dam or the best of the best.

Please focus your energies and my monies on those pupils who are represented by the non-null points on the curve.

Posted by: ecalderon | December 30, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Allow me to address the elephant in the room - brown kids who would rather thug than thrive.

May I point out that there has always been and will always be an underclass of humans who do not have the ability to engage as citizens of whatever society they find themselves contained?

The bell curve touches the null axis on two sides for a reason - not all are destined to be worth a tinker's dam or the best of the best.

Please focus your energies and my monies on those pupils who are represented by the non-null points on the curve.

Posted by: ecalderon | December 30, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

@wmwms14, yes the teacher is not a couselor or doctor (the despondency seen in the student could be the result of clinical depression) and the problems you outline that the child may face may be the case. But those are not problems the teacher can solve.

I saw this as a letter from a very caring teacher who sincerely wants to help her students succeed -but can't do it unless the students participate in their own progress to success. As to your comment about non-interest in subject matter -a curious person will be interested in any topic. I suspect some students put more energy into feigning disinterest than they would expend if they allowed their natural curiousity to be free to become even minimally engaged in the topic.

Yes, some students come with serious problems. Those problems are beyond the reach of the teacher. the teacher is there to teach. That is, to introduce subjects, concepts, information and to teach academic skills.

Lowered expectations of students who have problems is an insult to the students.

Posted by: quartz | December 30, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

@wmwilliams14. Believe me, the teachers know what problems the students come to school with - that's why we try, and that's why we cry. Yes, there are some bad teachers who should be removed, but the original letter writer didn't seem like one.

@ecalderon. This isn't a problem of skin color. You'll find these students in every school and in every class. It's more a socio-economic problem, but not always. Uncaring, disinterested parents and students with serious problems are found in all colors and economic classes.

Posted by: retiredteacher4 | December 30, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

@wmwilliams14. Believe me, the teachers know what problems the students come to school with - that's why we try, and that's why we cry. Yes, there are some bad teachers who should be removed, but the original letter writer didn't seem like one.

@ecalderon. This isn't a problem of skin color. You'll find these students in every school and in every class. It's more a socio-economic problem, but not always. Uncaring, disinterested parents and students with serious problems are found in all colors and economic classes.

Posted by: retiredteacher4 | December 30, 2010 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for responding, retiredteacher4. Again, I have never taught at a high school so I cannot possible imagine how tough it most be for all involved. I do think that a lot of kids want to learn and don't want to be left behind with all the stigma that goes with that.

We do need more good teachers but with the chronic budget cuts its unlikely. I guess we can't expect our kids to value education when it seems that the communities don't.

Thanks for your service as a teacher.

Posted by: wmwilliams14 | December 30, 2010 5:06 PM | Report abuse

The culture of poverty is difficult to change, but, there is hope. Too many commenters throw away the students in an instant. Bill Cosby would say, "Some folk need to get out more."
The teacher may need another type of work. Perhaps, the teacher does not have the support of the principal? In Washington, DC. we had a Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching...there are many ways to reach students and the more creative teachers can find it. It may not be in the standard curriculum, but if the teacher does home visits, etc. there are plenty of ways to reach the students!

Posted by: judithclaire1939 | December 30, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

I recommend to the author, and my fellow commenters, that you read Pat Welsh's column (he teaches at TCW) - especially the installment where his underachieving students explained why they "blow off" school - and the items in the Alexandria and ACPS press that were written by TCW students last year when the "persistently underachieving" label was slapped on TCW.

There are many factors at play. The twisted culture in some of our communities fosters disparaging of school achievement, much to the detriment of the students. And they know it... but they won't make the choices needed to break the cycle. In addition, we have done our kids no favors by allowing them to be promoted every year, whether they meet academic standards or not. And some of them, quite frankly, don't belong in school, because they lack the proper emotional and societal skills; and they do ruin it for everyone else.

Mainstream K-12 education is not for everyone. We need viable alternatives, including vocational training options. (As well as the removal of the societal incentives that encourage irresponsible parenting.) If TCW had the authority to remove those students who refuse to meet minimum academic or behavioral standards to an alternative setting, and the staff to enforce class attendance (as opposed to "running the halls"), it would be far more conducive to the education of every child who really wants to be there.

(And the same goes for every public high school.)

Posted by: nan_lynn | December 31, 2010 2:06 AM | Report abuse

to wmwilliams14: Why is it that everyone who has either been a student or has children who are students in school thinks they know so much about the inner workings of a classroom. And your comments show your ignorance.

Your child doesn't exhibit these behaviors in class because you do care and you do participate in his/her education. As you should since you are his/her parent and your child's preparedness for class is part of your responsibility that comes with having children.

But be assured, your child is impacted by the students referenced in this teacher's letter. They are your child's classmates. They suck up an inordinate amount of money, time, effort, curricular resources and emotion from your child's classroom teacher and school administration. Who do you think all these high stakes tests & NCLB regs are aimed at? Not your successful child.

Just think how much more resource would be available to your child if this teacher actually had the support of the parents and community.

Seems to me the selfish one here is you, wmwilliams14. Maybe you should do something useful to find out what some of these kids are really like. Set up a PTA program to do some one-on-one mentoring so their teachers could have someone else to turn to for help while trying desperately - and oh, so selfishly as you claim- to reach them.

And, thank your lucky stars (or a bad economy) that teachers like this are actually still in the classroom trying desperately to help children. Even yours.

Posted by: altaego60 | December 31, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

altaego60: Clearly, you haven't read my posts. I say again I haven't taught and cannot imagine what the teachers have to go through. If you knew me then you would now that I already volunteer and mentor other kids even though my daughter has graduated and is in college.

While I am very glad for teachers in this bad economy, I do feel sorry for the kids who have their own issues and are struggling as well. They might 'suck up resources' that could be used for other students but the alternative is to leave these kids behind year after year after year. I'm all for alternatives and hope this teacher and her school will come up with some.

As for your selfish claims, your post was full of snide, selfish remarks. I'd love to have a discussion with differences of opinions without the unnecessary name calling.

Posted by: wmwilliams14 | January 1, 2011 5:57 PM | Report abuse

I was fascinated by the lively discussion that followed my letter last week. It is unfortunate if anyone got the impression that I lack concern for my students. I actually love my kids and I take great satisfaction in my work. My reason for writing to the Post was that I find many who criticize educators don’t know how hard it can be to get some students to value education and apply themselves. I’m blessed with a fabulous principal and many talented colleagues. Moreover, the vast majority of my students are cooperative, even though they may not always be completely enthusiastic about me or my subject.
One of the more critical respondents made a valid point about the factory environment in which children are coerced to learn. It is difficult, although not impossible, to know the needs and desires of each of 140 students I see each day. I make a concerted effort, through an exchange of letters between us at the beginning of each semester, to learn about the personal lives of each of my students. Many do face real problems (although fortunately poverty and unsafe neighborhoods are not generally their experience), and I try to be sensitive and responsive to them. I also try to get to know what interests them and build lessons accordingly. (For instance, I've had students create a mock social network pages for characters from The Canterbury Tales.) It’s a demanding and humbling profession, but I can’t imagine giving up on these kids.
Thanks to everyone who has joined the conversation.

Jennifer Martin

Posted by: jmart1 | January 3, 2011 2:26 PM | Report abuse

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