The things I talk about in this article may be difficult for you to accept. Stay with me though, because without the proper way of thinking about students from trauma, you will be never help them achieve higher test scores…and you may very well negatively impact their chances for a better life.
Heavy stuff. Yes, but important. Let’s dive in.
Making excuses for student hardship
I’ve talked to a lot of teachers about student achievement and testing. And there is one thing that I hear consistently. To be blunt, what I hear is excuses for poor student performance. More than that, though, these thing is given as a reason for why a teacher can’t impact student learning or test scores.
What is it?
“My students come from…
- broken homes
- drug culture
…so they just can’t focus on learning at school.”
It’s unacceptable, frankly. But the idea is deeply entrenched in the culture of some classrooms and school buildings, so we need to discuss our way through it. Letting go of this misguided opinion is critically important for the success of your students.
Three reasons, one excuse
Sometimes the excuse is stated as a fact that should remove any expectation that classroom test scores will improve.
Sometimes it’s stated as a concern that masks the fears that a teacher has about her ability to influence children to learn when they already have so many huge influences affecting their lives.
Sometimes it’s stated in empathy for the children’s situation, compelling a teacher to focus more on tending to her student’s hearts than teaching to their brains.
The reason doesn’t matter at all. The result is always the same:
- Lack of student progress
- Failing test results
- Poor preparation for the next grade
…and ultimately poor preparation for life after school.
That’s the long term, bigger picture. But the worst of it, from your perspective, is the damage it can do in the short term to their school attitude, their self-esteem and their behavior.
You see, children love to learn. All children, from any background LOVE to learn. Each has a different capacity to learn based on their circumstances from day to day, but the desire is there in every one of them. It’s part of our human nature, programmed into our DNA. Humans are learning machines, and kids are learning machines on warp speed.
So when a child steps out of a difficult home life and steps into school, of course they need a different environment. And often they will be worn down, lacking a spark, or just plain tired. But they don’t need a break. They need the one thing that schools are designed and optimized to provide: rigorous learning. That’s the kind of brain break they need from the challenges in their lives.
Do you like to learn new things? Discover abilities in yourself that you didn’t know you had? Impress your friends with your insights? Share knowledge with others? Of course you do! Everyone does.
No one likes to be bored, pitied, unchallenged, stuck in a rut or falling behind. It’s demotivating. And it makes kids feel like their lives are difficult everywhere they turn: hard to feel safe at home, then hard to feel successful at school.
Students have to show up to learn
That’s pretty basic, but it’s true. Poor attendance sets kids back in their learning – way back.
Students who don’t feel successful won’t want to attend school. Many of our most challenging students have poor attendance. They get used to feeling like they don’t fit in and they are behind their peers. So why go to school?
I have had homeless or attendance-challenged students go from rarely-present to always-present. These students wanted to be at school because they felt valued and successful there. Their parents noticed and saw the benefit of keeping them in my classroom, at least for the year.
To these kids, school became a haven. It was a place where these students from trauma could feel safe and normal. Their brains could be exercised with math and science instead of uncertainty and chaos.
Their future is in your hands
I am a big believer in the promise of education, especially public education. There is no other way for a child from a disadvantaged background to alter their future course in life. Education is literally all they have.
So anytime a teacher holds back on teaching these children, even if it is out of empathy for their situation, he is hurting their one chance to succeed in life. That goes against the entire purpose of school!
The highest compliment a teacher can receive from a student is something I heard from one of my kids in a Title building one year. A new girl had arrived in my room and I asked my class if they had any advice for her. One of my kids piped up:
“We work really, really hard in this room. On everything. But it’s super fun!”
That made me proud! So much better than, “Mrs. Weigle is nice,” or other kind but meaningless words. In my room I’m constantly telling my students that it’s my job and my joy to teach and it’s their job and their joy to learn.
How would you describe a year in your room?
Jasmine suffered from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome and came from a home where she lived with her grandpa. Their electricity and water was often shut off and it was obvious that she only had two outfits to wear. Flea and bedbug bites were often noticeable. Her situation was heartbreaking, no doubt about it.
Listen to the way two different teachers describe her year in their room.
Teacher one: compassionate caring
“Jasmine really needed me to just be present for her. I got the counselor involved for the home issues, then I made sure that I was someone she could talk to about any problems.
“She struggled with reading and was two grades behind, so I borrowed books from lower-grade teachers so she could feel successful all year. Progress in math was hard for her, so I made sure that Special Education put particular emphasis on basics. She got the same homework as everyone else, but I let her know privately that I understood she had difficulty at home and didn’t have to turn it in.
“Overall, I think Jasmine really felt safe and protected at school, which was important for her mental wellbeing. She didn’t pass any year-end tests, but that’s not what this year was about.”
That doesn’t sound bad at all, does it? Pretty typical for the big-hearted people who become teachers. Let’s hear another teacher describe her year.
Teacher two: compassionate teaching
“I knew that this would be a make-or-break year for Jasmine. She was two years behind in reading and barely able add in math. One more year of that and she’d be lost to the system forever, a certain dropout in high school.
“I immediately engaged the counselor to ensure the family was aware of community services and utility bill payment programs. Grandpa’s involvement was critical, so I put a handwritten note on his open house invitation and called to personally encourage him to show up.
“I told Jasmine that she’d be reading at grade level in six months if we worked really hard together – I didn’t give her a choice! I figured out that she loved fairies, animals and weather, then gathered books on those topics to scaffold her up to grade level as quickly as possible. She read with me or a volunteer every single day. Reading was something that Grandpa was able to help her with at home, along with practicing her spelling words.
“She made slow but steady progress in reading, which helped a lot with her comprehension of math problems. I coordinated almost every day with Special Education, sending her to them with the work I was covering in class so they could provide one-on-one assistance on grade-level tasks.
“When she didn’t finish her homework, she spent part of lunch recess in my room with me available as a resource while I did prep tasks. With me as a resource, her confidence in her answers rose and her completion rate improved throughout the year.
“Jasmine was so proud to be reading grade-level books by the end of the year! She passed the year-end test in reading. She didn’t pass in math, but made incredible progress. Her Grandpa told me that this was the best year Jasmine had ever had in school.”
Which teacher gave Jasmine what she really needed to succeed in life?
Which teacher do you want to be?
Redirecting to learning
How does this look in practice? Well, we certainly can’t ignore the trauma. That’s not my point at all. We have to:
- Ensure a child gets breakfast so he can concentrate on math
- Let the counselor know about poor hygiene or other health and wellness concerns
- Talk to your district homeless liaison about a student who is couch surfing
And all those other things, large and small, that we do to address the needs of the whole child. But all of these actions are not an end in themselves. They are simply clearing the decks, so to speak, so the child can get back to their school job as quickly as possible.
Acknowledge difficulties, address social issues, provide a safe haven. But always, always, always guide the process back to what the child needs most from school (learning) and what you do best (teaching).
Elementary students don’t need you to be their friend, or their mother, or their father. They desperately need you to be their teacher. That may include all of the above, but the bottom line is teaching and learning. That’s all, and that’s enough.