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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Preparing Students for the Real World

By Peter DeWitt — November 11, 2012 4 min read
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Regardless of whether we are the Teacher of Record (TOR) or their scores on the high stakes test will affect our HEDI score, these students need us every single day that they walk into our classrooms and into our schools.

Thomas was one of six children in his family. All in all those six children had five different dads but they all shared the same mom. One of the dads was killed in a drug deal gone wrong when Thomas was in kindergarten. When his second grade teacher was getting ready for work in the morning he saw a local news story that Thomas’s mom got arrested for selling crack. His teacher assumed that Thomas would not be in school that day. That assumption was incorrect. He came in on time and tired stating that the “police was at his door.”

This was not in some poor section of New York City or large metropolis like that when we hear these stories. Thomas lived in an apartment in a small city which had seen some hard times. When Thomas was in first grade he dropped the F-bomb a few times in class and got sent to another room for a “Time out.” In second grade, a few weeks after his mother was released on bail, Thomas’s mother and “her boyfriend from jail” came to pick him up from school. That is what Thomas called his mother’s new beau...he was her boyfriend from jail. His teacher did not realize that jail was also a dating service.

Thomas was raised in a house where using the F word was commonplace. It was not frowned upon or seen as rude or disrespectful. It happened at dinner or at night when he was going to bed. Most kids his age had a parent that tucked them in and kissed them on the forehead. Thomas did not have that luxury. His reality was very different.

Soon after Thomas’s mother did hard time, he moved to a new city across the river. It wasn’t far away from his old home but it was far enough away to take him to a new school in the middle of the month, in the middle of the year. Most teachers cringe when a new students moves in at that time of year. Thomas’s teachers often cringed after they got to know him. His behavior off his ADHD medication was legendary and often times his mother skimmed a pill or two off the top so she could make a few extra dollars. Thomas did not really stand a chance when he was born, and his real world was vastly different from his teacher’s real world.

The Real World
It’s a comment you hear quite often and lately I have been thinking of it a lot. Michael Albertson, a frequent contributor to this blog recently wrote a blog called “The Real World.” Michael wrote, “Referring to “the real world” insinuates that our students’ lives are not part of “the real world”. It discredits their lived experiences and subtly promotes elitism: this way of operating -- my way of operating -- is how the world works.

I agree wholeheartedly with Michael. For full disclosure, Thomas was a former student of mine when I taught elementary school. The name has changed but the facts remain the same. There were so many nights that I walked away from school wondering how I could help Thomas. I wanted to teach him without judging his life which was not easy. His life was vastly different from my own.

Although Thomas sounds as though he made every day a terrible one, that could not be any further from the truth. Most days he wanted to make his teachers proud. I co-taught with a special education teacher and we both worked hard with Thomas and tried to form a bond with him. Deep down he had the same basic needs. It’s just that his home life was a struggle and he would sometimes come to class feeling self-destructive. It’s been years since I taught Thomas and I have no idea what has become of him because I moved as well but his realities have stuck in my head since he and I shared a classroom.

In the End
When educators, politicians and other adults talk about preparing kids for the real world they are usually talking about technology or some sort of student-centered approach to learning which are both very important. Technology is very important but we have students who need much more than technology to make their lives better.

Adults have to understand that all of our students live in the real world. It’s just that their real world may be very different from the one we live in when we go home. It doesn’t mean we need to change our expectations but it does mean that we have to be empathetic to their needs.

Regardless of whether we are the Teacher of Record (TOR) or their scores on the high stakes test will affect our HEDI score, these students need us every single day that they walk into our classrooms and into our schools. We know that our students are more than a number because if we treat them like one, we are no different than the people outside of school who treat them like one as well.

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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.