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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Education Opinion

That Moment We Decide We Can’t Teach a Student

By Peter DeWitt — March 02, 2017 5 min read

That moment...

It doesn’t happen for all teachers...because those teachers use formative assessment, their years of experience in the classroom, or a deep toolbox of strategies to make sure it never happens.

But it does happen...

There is a moment when we are teaching that a struggling student becomes the student we no longer think we can reach. It’s different for all of us, and it depends on our self-efficacy (.63), the climate of the school in which we teach, and the accountability we face from our school leaders.

School leaders can have a powerful role in that moment.

That moment is defined by how many other times the child didn’t understand a concept. Sometimes that moment is defined by the child’s last name because they entered into the classroom with a reputation. At some moment the teacher loses the bright eyed look they had when they were brand new and wanted to save the world, and dove into the thinking that someone else can do a better job with that child than they could.

I’m not referring to a student who will ultimately be classified under the umbrella of special education because of academic or social-emotional needs, although that is the topic of a blog all on its own. I’m referring to the student who seems to lack an understanding of the concept we are trying to teach, so we recommend them to the Child Study Team, Individual Study Team, Student Support Team or whatever we call it in our schools.

All schools have a child study-like team. What do they accomplish?

Even at that point, teachers approach the child study team meeting differently. Some are open to hearing options about what they could go back and try. Unfortunately others ignore the brainstorming activities by their peers on the team and only want to be told the student will get Academic Intervention Services (AIS), and therefore no longer be an issue for the teacher because they now have a paper trail.

That moment where a teacher decides a student is no longer reachable by them, is sometimes the moment a teacher decides that the student is no longer reachable by anyone. Not everyone has high expectations of students. It’s sometimes hard to remember that each student has a unique gift, it’s just harder for some students to show it.

Before we should be able to get to a meeting where we brush off our hands and give the student to a specialist, we should ask ourselves many questions.

We should ask ourselves:


  • Is it my teaching strategy that isn’t working?
  • Was I clear enough with our learning targets?
  • Did I have learning intentions (Hattie) that provided all of the students with an understanding of what they would be learning?
  • Did I provide students with success criteria (Hattie), which means I showed them what success looks like before they dove deeply into the learning?
  • Do all of the students understand that their learning is a progression from one thing to the next?

One of the many things I have learned from John Hattie as a Visible Learning trainer is that there are a multitude of teaching and learning strategies we could be using in the classroom. Instead of lecture, we could be using reciprocal learning, classroom discussion, metacognitive strategies. Did they feel like they had a voice in the process? Additionally, we could invite someone into our classroom to see if we are getting across to all students, the information we have in our heads as teaching. Have we stopped to think that it could be us and not the student?

That Moment
Truth be told I have been thinking a lot about that moment. It’s not just teachers who have that moment with students, but it’s also leaders who have that moment with teachers. That moment has an effect on all of us.

I believe it’s a moment of self-efficacy and understanding what it means to meet someone where their level of understanding is, and work with them to gain a deeper understanding. Hattie defines self-efficacy as “The confidence or strength of belief that we have in ourselves that we can make our learning happen.” Didn’t we get into teaching and leading to help raise the self-efficacy of others? Did we get into teaching and leading believing that only the ones who make our life easy are the ones worth our time?

Teachers with a strong sense of self-efficacy approach that moment where a child doesn’t understand a concept differently than a teacher with a low level of self-efficacy. The teacher with a strong sense of self-efficacy tries different strategies to see if they will work differently for that student in need. They may ask an instructional coach to help them see if they have a blind spot. MIT researcher Otto Scharmer defines the blind spot as a place we operate from but can’t always see. A teacher with a strong sense of self-efficacy asks for an instructional coach, critical friend or school social worker or psychologist to come in and observe the teacher and student in action.

A teacher with a low level of self-efficacy approaches the same situation very differently.

Ashton and Webb (1986) say,

Teachers with low teaching efficacy don't feel that teachers, in general, can make much of a difference in the lives of students, while teachers with low personal teaching efficacy don't feel that they, personally, affect the lives of the students.

So, therefore those teachers may blame the student for not paying attention or trying hard enough. They may blame the parents for not being as involved, or they may blame the curriculum for being too hard. All of these issues may contribute to a child not understanding, but does that teacher ever reflect on their own practices and decide that maybe it’s their strategy that is not working?

And as for the teacher having a low level of self-efficacy, there are many things leaders can do to support them. Sometime as simple as a building a relationship with them, sharing best practices at faculty meetings, or matching them up with an instructional coach or critical friend.

In the End
That moment when a child doesn’t understand a concept is fairly powerful. It sets of a chain reaction where teachers can tell it’s a one time issue that the child isn’t understanding...a mere blip on the radar. Or depending on the child...and the paper trail that follows them...the teacher may decide it’s time to go to a child study team.

Even from there, the situation gets complicated because one teacher may be hoping for new strategies to try in the classroom while another is merely doing their time to get the child some sort of special services, where a specialist comes and picks up the child and the teacher no longer has the deep role they once did.

That moment really defines us.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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.

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