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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

4 Lessons We Can Learn From a Struggling Learner

By Peter DeWitt — March 25, 2018 5 min read
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For those of you who have read this blog in the past, you know I spent most of my formative years struggling as a learner. For those of you who do not know my background, I will provide a few of the highlights.

I was retained in fourth grade, my dad passed away when I was in fifth grade, and had lost all of my grandparents by then. Through junior high school I was placed in some study skills classes, which really didn’t help me achieve any higher than if I had not been placed there.

When I entered high school, I was a sub-sophomore because I lacked the proper number of credits to become a full-fledged sophomore. So, there I sat in a freshman homeroom with peers who were two years younger than me. We know that statistics show that those students who were in my position were at high risk of dropping out of school. My four older siblings and mom would not allow that to happen.

I distinctly remember trying to sneak out of homeroom so my friends didn’t see that I was coming out of a freshman class. Although truth be told, sneaking around didn’t matter because I did have friends who made fun of me for my struggles, and others who didn’t allow the struggles to become an excuse.

Fortunately, I became a long-distance runner when I was a junior in high school and my coaches were two guys I looked up to, and they helped me want to stay in school. I was in this weird middle stage where I didn’t want to drop out of school, but I had no direction while I was there either. I went in every day, and felt a little lost while I was going from class to class.

Running became my sanctuary. It became the reason I started to try to become a better student. I had a few flexible and understanding teachers, two really inspiring coaches, and some friends and family who were always supportive, which helped get me to the first important milestone of graduating. However, I graduated from high school ranked 262 out of 266. Yes, fourth from last in my class. Along with some other personal issues I carried with me, school seemed to be something that I would always struggle with, but I tried a few community colleges any way to see if I could further my education.

After two failed attempts at the community college level, I tried one more because they had a cross country running team, and my sister talked me into just trying to get a two-year degree so I had something more than just a high school diploma.

It worked.

With the good fortune of meeting a coach and a teacher, and being told by my coach to go to the Learning Assistance Center (LAC) or I wouldn’t be able to join the team, I walked into the LAC with a whopping 1.7 GPA. You see, my SAT scores were so low, that I was academically ineligible to run, but due to the time in between graduating from high school and proving I was serious about getting extra help to improve my grades, I was given the opportunity to run for the team.

That semester, my grades went from a 1.7 to a 3.86. I now have two master’s degrees and a doctorate. And although I had some teachers who tried to lend me a hand and give me full support along the way, I had plenty of others who were ready to throw me to the side, because I had a reputation as a struggling learner, and they weren’t always keen to have me in their class. I wasn’t a trouble maker, which made it a bit easier, because I didn’t disrupt the class, I merely took a seat in them. Luckily, I developed a different and more successful path.

A Few Things I’ve Learned
I do not do a lot of things well, but I do believe I understand what it’s like to be on both sides of the educational coin. In a strange way, I feel fortunate to have my struggling experiences because I made it to the other side. I have found some success (in my terms of success) when it comes to education.

However, I also know what it’s like to feel out of options when it comes to school. I know what it’s like to feel lost when deciding how to move forward. As much as I openly share my struggling past now, it took until I was 35 years old to actually admit it out loud to people. I never wanted people to know my high school class rank. And yes, that number stuck with me for many, many years.

There are four things I would like educators to know from a struggling learner perspective. They are:

Don’t let a student’s reputation totally shape your beliefs - John Hattie recently wrote a guest blog for me on this topic, which you can read here. Sometimes educators have a tendency to talk about students, and they help perpetuate a reputation for a student that could work against that child. In my case, there were teachers who talked about how my life was a bit sad because I lost my dad at a young age, or they talked about how I struggled with academics and they created a glass ceiling for me, which led to the next thing I want educators to know.

Just because we struggle, doesn’t mean we are doomed to struggle forever - In these days of high stakes testing, accountability and multiple labels we put on students, there becomes a belief that if the “poor baby” struggles in elementary, middle or high school, they are doomed to struggle for the rest of their lives. That’s simply not true. Nor do we as educators have a crystal ball to prove that is the case. Some students find their voice through by getting a fresh break in a new town, or through a tragic event where they build resilience. This leads to #3.

High school isn’t the end of the road - We, as educators, sometimes treat high school as if it is the end of the road. Those who were successful in high school will go on to have a great life, and those who were not can find a trade. I have met students who only received A’s in high school who couldn’t handle failing a class in college and they dropped out. I have also met people who went into a trade, opened up a business and became highly successful. High school is merely the beginning of the road, and what happens after can offer a very welcomed fresh start. I speak from experience.

What you do and say matters - I remember the positive words of my teachers and coaches, and I also remember the negative words that were thrown at me as well. Our words matter and they can make or break some students. If you treat a student as a struggling learner, and talk down to them because of it, it will take a place in shaping who they become. How do you talk with your students who struggle?

In the End
Adults so often say failure is a part of life, but they treat students who struggle as if they are doomed to struggle forever, and then they tout that everyone should have a growth mindset. High school isn’t where we weed the good students from the bad, it’s where we help them grow no matter where they come from. It’s important for those of us who talk about the benefits of failure to actually practice what we preach as well.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017). Connect with him on Twitter.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.