One Child At a Time!

Imagine that you have just started a new job with a highly reputable employer, along with 30 other new hires. Imagine having begun the month-long new employee training program and discover that all of the other trainees seem to be a step ahead of you in all of the prerequisite skill sets.

As you begin this exercise to not do so casually. Strive to show true empathy so that you actually feel what it would be like to find yourself in such a predicament when all of your peers seem to be doing well. Imagine, also, that the fact that you are struggling is readily apparent to everyone else in the program.

Next, imagine that you have finished the first phase of the program while earning the lowest score in the class. Think about how this would feel. What would be going through your mind?

Would you feel as if you were an integral part of the group or would you feel like an outsider? Dredge your past for a time when you experienced this or something similar. Compare how you felt then with what you are feeling now. Would you feel ready to move on to the next phase of the training or would you feel desperate for a little more time to study or maybe a little more time with the instructor?

Now, as you begin phase 2 of this 5-part program, imagine that any illusions you may have had about this being a fresh start are shattered by the discovery that doing well on this new subject matter requires that you be able to apply the skills, knowledge, and principles that were covered in phase 1. Strive to imagine what it would feel like to discover, as you move through the phases of training, that you are a little further behind at the end of each phase and even less prepared for what is to follow.

Would you feel comfortable in asking the instructor for a little extra time and attention? Would you be willing to share with the instructor just how far behind you are? How about your classmates? Would you feel comfortable asking one of them to help you understand?

Can you feel the sense of panic that would be almost certain to descend upon you? How would you assess your chances of successfully completing the training? After repeated failure, is there a point at which you begin to feel like quitting? Are you excited about the chance to move out onto the shop floor to begin work or is your gut knotting with dread at that prospect?

If you are a public school teacher, how many students in your classroom are living this nightmare, lesson after lesson, subject after subject, grading period after grading period? How many of the students in your school are struggling with this very phenomenon—a phenomenon I like to call the “cycle of failure?” Now, multiply that number by the number of facilities in your school district; in your state; and, finally, multiply that number by the number of stars on our flag.

If we are honest with ourselves we will acknowledge that the number of struggling students—the number of failing students—is staggering. How many kids does it take before it becomes a national tragedy? When we think about this “cycle of failure” in terms of millions of children in tens of thousands of classrooms, it seems overwhelming. Is it any wonder that public school teachers feel hopeless to do anything about it?

The sad reality of this crisis in public education is that to solve the dilemma and end the crisis, all teachers must do is slow down and give each child the time they need to understand before we ask them to move on to the next lesson. It would be simple except for the fact that slowing down is not part of the expectations placed on American public school teachers.

Our expectations in the present reality of public education is that teachers must move their entire class of students down a predetermined path so that they all arrive at the same time and with the same level of preparation for the standardized competency exams that loom in our not-to-distant future; exams by which teachers and their schools will be held accountable.

The educational process does not account for the individual students who fall off the side of the path and become hopefully lost and makes no provision for attending to their needs. Teachers care very much, however, and they do their best to give these children a little extra time and attention but the pressure to move the students along is relentless.

From a practical perspective, the solution is simple. All we need to do is alter our expectations so that each and every child is to be given however much time they need. Impossible, you say! It is not impossible. In fact, just the opposite is the case. Making such a change from a human engineering perspective is as simple it could be. Once expectations have changed, all that is required are some modifications to the classroom management process.

The problem is not the practicability of such changes but rather the political component.

Somehow we must convince policy makers that each child is a precious resource of incalculable value and that an educational process is dysfunctional if it views struggling children as collateral damage. The bottom line is that our society cannot afford to lose a single child let alone a few million children. We must make certain that every child counts and the only way we can make certain they count is to do so one child at a time.

“Just Let Me Teach” Is What Teachers Hope and Pray They Will Be Allowed to Do!

“Just Let Me Teach” is not only the title of a great radio program, hosted by Justin Oakley on IndianaTalks radio, it is the perfect tagline for a movement to save public education in America.

Implicit in the definition of the word “teach” is that someone “learns.” If learning does not occur then we have not really taught.

The fundamental purpose at the outset of public education in America was two-fold. On the one hand, the purpose was to help kids learn the basic knowledge and skills that they would need to fulfill the responsibilities of citizenship. On the other, our objective was to give kids choices in life by helping them develop their unique talents and abilities to the optimum level while also arming them with the strong self-esteem they will need to deal with life’s challenges and control most of the outcomes in their lives.

The mechanism for fulfilling our purpose in education was to place children under the tutelage of trained teachers and, from the outset, the most effective teachers were the ones who were able to form close, personal, nurturing relationships with their students. The idea was to create an environment in which we place teachers in a position to teach and children in a position to learn.

As we have said in a previous article, the relationship between teacher and student is where real and sustainable learning takes place. Relationship trumps everything.

After over a half-century or more of misguided reforms and a profusion of secondary agendas we find ourselves with a structure that prevents teachers from doing what society and their students so desperately need them to do and what teachers, themselves, so fervently want to do.

• When did it become our purpose to prepare kids for standardized competency exams?

• When did it become our purpose to see how students measure up against the performance of their classmates rather than focus on their own progress?

• When did we decide it was a good idea to push kids ahead to new material when they still struggle to comprehend?

• Whatever possessed us to set some kids up for failure and humiliation while we celebrate the accomplishments of their high-performing classmates?

How do these activities serve our fundamental purpose to let teachers teach and students learn?

Why is it so difficult for teachers and administrators to shout “whoa!” and acknowledge that what we are doing does not work for a growing population of American kids and we are not just talking about poor and minority children, although they are clearly over-represented in this population? The evidence is there for all to see!

The world has always been full of distractions but the powerful allure of “social media” and the ready availability of a full menu of multi-sourced media have had a supercharging effect on peer pressure. The result is that it is exponentially more difficult for parents and teachers to capture and sustain the attention of our nation’s children.

If, today, we were given the opportunity to reconstruct the educational process to achieve our fundamental purpose is there anyone out there who believes we would we choose to do any of the nonsensical activities that dominate the time and energy of modern-day teachers, a few of which we have identified above?

Instead, teachers would ask for more time to teach; more time for kids to keep trying until things begin to make sense and they begin to gain confidence that they can do it; more support from parents willing to share responsibility for the education of their children; and, less time devoted to unproductive busy work and recordkeeping, all of which the business community has learned to automate.

We know teachers everywhere look in the mirror, every morning, and offer up a wish or a prayer in which they say each day, “just let me teach.” If we work together, beginning today, we will create a reality in which teachers leave for school each morning with full confidence that teaching is exactly what they will be both allowed and expected to do.

What If We Were Teaching One Student at a Time?

When we compare teaching in a classroom by a certified teacher to teaching in a more intimate environment like tutoring, things are different.

Academic tutors, often, work with one student at time and frequently with a focus on just one subject area.

Think about the tutoring process. The tutor presents the subject matter to the student; strives to explain the material in a way that the student comprehends; gives them opportunities to practice; provides feedback and clarification followed by more practice; gives them a practice test to see how they are doing; and, finally, sends them off to take a test, often in their regular classroom at school.

These are the same things all teachers do every day in public school classrooms throughout the nation. What is different? The biggest difference is what happens when kids fail.

In the classroom, the teacher’s choices are generally limited and, typically, involves recording the student’s score in a gradebook and then moving the student on to the next lesson, along with his or her classmates.

In a tutoring relationship, when a student has failed to achieve a targeted degree of mastery over the lesson material the tutor’s response is different because their defined expectations are different. Their job is not yet complete. The expectation is that the tutor will help the student achieve mastery and nothing short of that outcome is acceptable.

Subsequent to poor performance, the tutor goes back to work with the student, possibly utilizing another method of presentation with plenty of opportunities for the student to practice, get feedback, take additional practice tests, etc. until he or she is ready to move on. Always, the tutor is there to help their charge in any way they can.

Understand that the overwhelming majority of classroom teachers would love to spend more time with every student who struggles with the material and they do so, whenever circumstances permit. The problem, of course, is that circumstances rarely permit.

The classroom teacher is always a certified teacher while the tutor may or may not be. Certified teachers are every bit as capable as the tutor, often more so. The traditional educational process is simply not structured in a way that a teacher, routinely, is able or expected to slow down for just one student. Rather, teacher accountability is focused on the number of their students who are able to pass state, standardized competency exams.

Our conclusion is that the only reason classroom teachers do not devote extra time for every student who needs it is because the American educational process is not structured in a way that it would support both teacher and student in such activity, and also because it is not a core expectation of teachers. Teachers are not given sufficient flexibility. That some kids fail is nothing more than a consequence of current educational policy.

Try to imagine what a different place school would be if every student was given the time and support necessary to achieve a score of 85 percent or better in all of their classes.

Most teachers reading this post will respond that it is naïve to think that such a reality is even possible. Given current expectations and the way the educational process is structured, they are correct.

Change the rules of the game, however, and the way in which the game is scored and what seemed impossible now becomes relatively easy.

From a systems-engineering perspective, bringing about such change is relatively easy. The challenge is opening the hearts and minds of policymakers, principals, and teachers so that they begin to believe such realities are possible.