By: Eric Pederson

In my previous article I recapped a bit of my history in education, but mainly I drew attention to the fact that educators as a whole leave college largely unprepared for what truly lies ahead of them. With the articles that are to follow in this column, I hope to bring to pull the curtain back on some of good things that new teachers experience as well as shed some light on a great deal of what they may be entirely unprepared for.

As a new educator the overwhelming sense of drowning in responsibility is next to impossible to ignore. Sure, there is an almost tangible sense of excitement about your efforts paying off and finally being dropped into your own classroom, but that soon fades as reality sets in and you come to terms with the fact that you alone are responsible for providing these children with the best education available.

This desire to provide the next generation with the level of education they both need and deserve is perhaps the single largest driving force behind young people entering the education field. We have an obligation to those who follow us to make sure that they are prepared for when the time comes for them to take charge and run the world. As such, we think that we, as a team of teachers, have all the answers and will be able to make even the most stubborn, disinterested students see the light and succeed in school. It’s a common thought process among new teachers to think that they have the hidden ability to save them all.

Unfortunately, that castle in the sky comes crashing down shortly after the first couple weeks of school have ended. Once the honeymoon phase with the students is over and as you all settle into the routine of the school year, each student’s true colors begin to shine through. Although it’s generally frowned upon for teachers pass judgment upon any student, it’s at this point when it’s easy to tell who really cares about school and who doesn’t.

Now it’s important that at this time I take a second to clarify the difference between those students. If you ask any child whether they would rather be at school doing math and writing essays or outside playing with friends all day, you can probably guess the answer with near perfect accuracy. Think back to your childhood. I certainly know that I was guilty of uttering the phrase “I hate school!” more than my fair share of times. However, I still went, did my work, and succeeded because I knew the value of it. There is a stark difference between students who say they don’t really enjoy school and those who truly have no interest in it whatsoever.

As educators we are naturally drawn to those struggling students in an attempt to find a way to get through to them and make them see the importance of a good education. We have a burning desire to see every child intently focused on their homework while not hesitating to come to you for help on things they struggle with. We want to build a happy family of learners in our room who all know the value of good education. Unfortunately, the grim reality is that no matter how good you are, you can’t save them all.

This realization hit me quite early in my teaching career while working a classroom where most of the students’ parents were in the country illegally. Although the children spoke fluent English and very few of them had identified learning disabilities, most of them saw no value in a good education. I really struggled to find an answer to as to why and it wasn’t until I began delving into these students’ home lives that things started to become clear.

As children of immigrant families these kids didn’t have the best home life, to put it lightly. A handful of these kids came to school each day not having eaten anything since lunch the day before while others hadn’t seen a shower in several days due to a lack of running water and electricity in their homes. Believe it or not, these students’ problems paled in comparison to those of other kids in the class.

This particular section of town struggled with violent gang activity and plenty of these kids had older siblings who were deeply rooted in that lifestyle. One particular student shared with me how when he was six years old he watched his uncle get stabbed to death in his front yard. I can’t even begin to imagine what else this poor kid had seen in his lifetime. Others were constantly afraid of rival gangs and drive by shooting that many of them were terrified to play outside or even be anywhere near the front of the house.

I soon discovered that although school was a safe haven for many of these kids, they had problems to worry about that were much larger than whether or not they were able to finish their math homework the night before.

Now, I understand that this particular classroom provided some examples that were more towards the extreme side of the spectrum, but it does shed a bit of light on the true nature of why we can’t possibly hope to save them all.

Other classrooms I’ve worked in, although more traditional in nature, have yielded much the same results when it comes to particular students not caring about education as much as they should.

A typical classroom may only consist of one, maybe two students who truly flirt with the ‘cannot be saved’ line. Although I genuinely believe that every student has the ability to succeed, it’s a strange mixture of external circumstances and influences that ultimately determine whether or not a child can achieve their maximum potential.

Perhaps the most pervasive and easily identifiable influence comes in the form of parental support, or lack thereof. It’s almost a given that if a students’ parents don’t see the value of education and treat school more like a free daycare center than a place where their child can create a better future for themselves, then the student is going to reciprocate those feelings. Even worse, a student not having parents around at all makes the problem exponentially greater.

For example, I had a couple students who were by and far the largest behavior problems in the entire grade level. They were constantly distracting other students while blatantly refusing to do their homework or participate in class. After several conversations with these students I came to discover that one these students was a member of a foster home because their parents were either in jail and/or found unfit by the state to raise them. The other student recently found out that his parents were moving across the country and leaving him to be raised by his grandparents.

From their perspective, although unfortunate, education was the least of their worries.

Finally, there just simply exists a group of students who, despite a perfect home life and extensive parental support and interaction, just have absolutely zero interest in education. No amount of work from any party can garner even a modicum of interest in these students to apply themselves. This group of students I usually find the most heartbreaking to work with because the potential is there, the support is there, but the desire is nowhere to be found.

As much as we don’t want to believe it and don’t want to accept it, some students just have more pressing matters in their life above and beyond education. Does that mean that we shouldn’t try to save them all? Absolutely not! As educator’s it is our responsibility to ensure that each student receives the individual attention that they deserve and do everything in our power to help them succeed, but we also have to come to terms with the harsh realization that some students just cannot be helped.

Fortunately, for as depressing a thought as that is, there are those times when all your efforts pay off and you somehow manage to break through to a student who is dangerously close to being unreachable. Finding a way to get through to a student who may have been on the fast track to a life on the streets or even in jail and watching them finally ‘get it’ is perhaps the most rewarding experience as a teacher. And no, I don’t think that teachers come out of college prepare for that experience either.

Do you think that you can save “all” the children? Or is it a “catch 22” where some want to be saved while others don’t?

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