The Way Education Should Be (Because Making a Difference for One Is Still Making a Difference)

learning“So, what will I be doing?” I inquired of my new boss, the principal at the middle school where I work.

“You’ll be working with the lowest performing kids,” she answered simply.

I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but I didn’t want to sound like an idiot by asking her to expound. I figured I would find out soon enough as the first day of school was the following week.

Here I am 2 ½ years later, and I now know what she meant by “lowest performing kids.” You see, this principal has a passion for those kids; the ones who fall through the cracks. She’s not cool with letting kids fail simply to teach them the lesson: If you don’t work hard, you’ll fail. She recognizes that there are some kids out there who couldn’t care less if they fail. The only problem they have with dropping out of school at age 16 is waiting until they’re 16. For too many kids, especially the ones I see from low socioeconomic areas, there has been no role model, no advocate for them. They haven’t been taught that there’s value in education.

So this principal hired me to work with them. I help them get organized, and I try to teach them the importance of staying on top of their work, keeping track of assignments, turning them in on time, studying for tests, etc. I praise them when they do well. I bribe them with candy to do their work. I give them my disappointed look when they fail a test, then I pull out a study guide so I can help them understand the material before giving them a retake. Basically, I force my students to work. Some of them are thankful for a quiet place to study and a friendly face to encourage them to do their best. Some of them are resentful and tell me daily how much they hate my class or school in general. Regardless of their attitudes, I continue to push them. I figure as long as I can help them to stick it out and earn their diplomas, there’ll be one less drop-out in the world, and they’ll have a better chance at a prosperous future. Without these interventions, some of these kids would never pass.

This same principal requires that all teachers (who teach six or seven classes a day with over 20 kids in each class) personally contact every parent when their student is earning a D or an F in their class. She also requires teachers to offer retakes to kids who do poorly on assessments. After all, the end goal is for the child to learn the material (even if it takes a couple tries and it happens later than the rest of the class.) They can also turn in late assignments without points being deducted for the same reasons. She’s even put into a place of sort of study hall where teachers can send kids who fail to complete assignments on time. This sends the message to those kids who are perfectly happy blowing off assignments and getting failing grades, that blowing off work is NOT an option. Failing is NOT an option. We care, and we will do what we can to make sure you pass. Maybe she has these attitudes because she’s from Illinois where education is very different than it is here in Florida. Illinois, where my kids’ old high school called, emailed, texted, and sent snail mail every single Friday if your kid had a D or an F in any class.

There are many who scoff at this principal’s methods. “We’re just setting them up for failure.” “It won’t be this way in high school, and they’ll be in for a rude awakening.” “Why should they have the opportunity to retake a test? They had plenty of time to study for it.” “Why should I call home when the parent can go online and see their kids’ grades?” “Why should I let them turn in late assignments? If they didn’t do it when it was assigned, then tough luck to them. They’ll learn the next time.”

But let’s look at this another way. Here’s a different scenario: One of my sons earned three Fs on his first semester report card. Not a single teacher contacted me. Not even once. I set up meetings with his teachers. I emailed them. “Let me know when he’s not doing his work. Let me know what he needs to work on. I want him to be successful and he’s completely capable, but he needs more motivation than your average student.” Nothing. If he missed an assignment, he didn’t lose privileges from the school. He wasn’t given detention or forced to go to Saturday school. He didn’t have to do the missing assignments. In fact, he wasn’t allowed to turn in the missing assignments! The school basically said, “Oh well, we don’t care if you pass or fail. It’s not our job to make sure you succeed. You lose.” This same son who had dreams of going to college is now starting to say he doesn’t want to go to school, and he doesn’t care if he ever gets a good job. What would’ve happened if his teachers had contacted me regularly? What if they understood that he wasn’t motivated to do his work? What if they understood that he still didn’t care even though I’d taken away all his privileges? What if they’d made him stay after school to do his work? What if they’d cared just a little extra, knowing that he didn’t care at all?

Or how about this situation: I got my 9-year-old’s report card for the first semester. Both quarters he earned straight As. He’s a smart kid, and he does well in school. However, there was a note with this report card that caught my attention. It said that although my son had gotten all As, he couldn’t attend the honor roll movie night because he hadn’t turned in all of his homework. I don’t personally agree that he should have been punished like that. After all, homework is assigned to reinforce the concepts taught in class. If a student is earning As on all his assessments, then clearly, he’s mastered the material presented in class. But my personal feelings aside, I don’t understand how a 4th grade teacher (who has a single class of 20-ish students) could go an entire quarter with absolutely no communication to the parents. I’m usually good at checking my kids’ homework, however there was a short time when I was lax with Clayton’s assignments. If his teacher had called, emailed, texted, left a note in his planner, sent a letter, anything at all, I would have addressed the homework situation right away. There was no communication. No making up the work. Just tough luck, kid. You lose.

I’m all about teaching kids to be responsible, and I do believe that every action should have a fitting consequence. But when a kid, a child, doesn’t turn in an assignment or study for a test, should we let them fail? Is this really teaching them about life? Is this giving them an accurate picture of the consequences for not doing their work? If you fail to complete a task at work, does your boss say, “Oh well, it’s too late. Don’t bother doing it at all now. You’re fired.” Perhaps. But more likely, he says, “You need to do it. I guess you’ll have to stay late or come in on Saturday to finish it.” I know, at my school, if you, oh say, forget to turn in lesson plans on time, the principal doesn’t tell you, “Well, it’s too late to do it now. You fail. There’s the door.” No. She says, “Get them to me by the end of the day.” The punishment isn’t failure. The punishment is feeling bad and having to give up some of your personal time or cancel plans in order to do the work.

I’m personally very glad that I work in a school where its understood that not all kids are encouraged at home. These kids, left to their own devices, would be perfectly content failing. And I’m glad there are many interventions to ensure those same kids know there are people who believe in them and are not about to give up on them and let them fail. Like the Starfish Story, it counts when you can make a difference to even one student.


Image courtesy of Flickr

Want to read more from Dawn? Get her books here: Because I Said So (and other tales from a less-than-perfect parent) and You’ll Lose the Baby Weight (and other lies about pregnancy and childbirth).

Check out Dawn’s blog here: Because I Said So

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