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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

The Transient Student

By Peter DeWitt — February 23, 2012 4 min read
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“Each person has something to contribute to the group, and the group is diminished without that contribution” (Tomlinson et al.p.30).

They walk into our schools mid-year. Sometimes it’s the beginning or middle of a random month. Long after teachers have created bonds with their students and begin to feel like a family, the transient student enters the roster. Depending on the school, the teacher may roll their eyes at the thought of a new student or the principal fights with central office to find out why they are getting the student when the other schools in the district may have less.

In these days of rising class sizes, people fight over things that they never used to stress out about. There was a time when a new student was a welcomed addition in classrooms. Unfortunately during these times of increased pressure on high stakes testing, dwindling budgets, and the demands of teacher and administrator evaluation, a new student can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. After all, all of these pressures are creating a great deal of paranoia and a new student who may lack skills is the last thing teachers want.

A new student, especially a transient one, can upset the applecart. They come in with a label that is different from all the other usual labels. No one knows what their state test scores were or whether they were ever brought up to the Child Study Team (CST). Most times a transient student comes in with very little paperwork, especially if they had not stayed in their previous placement very long. The label that the transient student enters school with is the just that...they’re transient. And that label can work against them.

How long were they at the last school? Do they have special needs? Didn’t I get the last new student? Isn’t her class smaller than mine? This student seems very low to me. Great, they came from that school! You know they don’t have the curriculum resources we do? Those are just some of the questions that come with the angst of getting a new student that a teacher knows very little about.

However, not all teachers and principals react that way. Many welcome the new student in their classroom with open arms and look at it as an opportunity to meet someone new. Focusing on the positive, they believe that perhaps the student will stay in their school and get some consistency in their lives. Students who are transient lack consistency, which we know is something they desperately need. Consistency helps a child grow to be a better student.

The Transient Perspective
It’s not easy to enter a classroom not knowing anyone. Students who have travelled from school to school can tell when they are not wanted. However, the last thing they want is to have to go from school to school. They want to be in one place for a long time, especially if it’s a great school. Transient students walk into most situations knowing they may not last a long time there. They know from experience that their parents will move them to a new school within a few months. Sometimes transient students just move from one school district back to another one.

What does it do to their level of participation in class? What must it feel like to always be the new kid? Does it hurt their psyche to attend a great school and move to one that is less stellar a few months later? To only get to attend a great school for a few months before leaving to go to a school that lacks resources is like looking at presents under a Christmas tree, picking one up and unwrapping it, and then never getting time to play.

Transient students are often underestimated when they walk into a classroom. Especially if they have a file that shows that they have visited many schools in their experience. However, those students may have hidden talents that teachers will not see if they do not give the student a chance to show them. All they need is a great teacher and a supportive classroom to show what they know.

The truth is that transient students are often the ones that the teachers care the most about. At first it may be hard to get a new student, but the ones who move around a lot are the ones that leave lasting impressions on teachers. The student may have been in the classroom long enough to make it into the school photo, which then makes it into the teacher’s collection of class pictures that they keep forever. Most students who stay in a school for their whole experience get what they need at home and school. Teachers know that transient students are not fortunate enough to get what they need.

What transient students need to know is that when they leave it is much harder than when they came in the first place. Teachers have a wonderful way, especially in the elementary world, of believing their students are their children for a year. When one of those children leaves the “nest” of the classroom too early, they also leave a lasting impression on their teachers.

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Tomlinson, Carol Ann & Edwin Lou Javius. Teaching Up for Excellence. Education Leadership. The Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development. February, 2012.blockquote>

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.