I began a new career this year, leaving a high school principalship to teach educational leadership at a state university. One of my major goals was to help my graduate students--all teachers interested in becoming school administrators--understand the realities that exist in schools, hoping that they might make a difference in these schools in their future careers. In an effort to make a potentially dry subject ("governance and politics in education") come to life, I asked each of my students to identify one at-risk student and research the student's life, trying to determine how schools meet or fail to meet such students' needs.
My graduate students' resulting papers were fresh evidence of the tremendously difficult jobs of today's teachers and school administrators. The revelations are particularly disturbing considering that these studies took place in the cities and towns of eastern Nebraska and western Iowa--not in the socially complex environments of more populated states.
The investigations into the lives of the at-risk students became real-life research. These young people were not statistics in a textbook; they were lives in our community. Their stories are worth sharing.
One of my students wrote about Jenny, whose mother, an alcoholic currently in her fifth marriage, had coerced Jenny into "acting stupid" in school so they could get additional welfare benefits.
Another graduate student reported about Becky, who was a 4th grader suffering from the continuing effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. Becky's young mother and father had both died from alcohol-related illnesses, and Becky's recurring emotional and physical problems will probably be her most lasting reminder of her parents.
One graduate student worked with James, who had never known his father and whose mother had died when he was 12. The graduate student and his teacher-colleagues were frustrated because James didn't seem to care about himself or his future. My student concluded that James "has built up a wall around himself and probably will not let anyone in for a long time, if ever."
We also learned about Niki, who was living with her grandmother and raising her own new baby. Niki's boyfriend had just returned from several months at a state detention facility, the result of his involvement in an armed robbery. We educators not only worried about the educational life of Niki but also about the future of her newborn child.
One of my students wrote emotionally about Lenny, who had attended 16 schools by the 9th grade. Only three of Lenny's relatives were working at traditional jobs. All of the others were dead or selling drugs or serving time. The graduate student wrote, "As a school system we may have failed Lenny, but it was not from a lack of trying." The support from outside agencies and programs Lenny had received included help provided by multiple welfare programs, free lunches, free busing, summer work programs, assistance from reading and math specialists, speech and hearing testing, and the work of student-assistance teams and countless dedicated teachers. The deciding factors for Lenny, though, were the uncertainty of gang life and the certainty of death, more powerful realities than school.
Several of the graduate students were moved by the lives they discovered, as indicated by these emotional conclusions:
One graduate student wrote: "Being at school was much more enjoyable for Mike than being at home, and there are many children like him in school systems and in society. In some respects, public education is the only hope for these students."
Another student, an elementary teacher, concluded: "As educators we can only do so much...we aren't able to take Johnny home with us and watch over his every move. The rest of the story lies in the hands of Johnny; I hate to say that about an 11-year-old kid."
A high school teacher wrote: "Not everything can be legislated or controlled in the school setting. The environment in which the child lives must also be subject to some types of control. Without that additional control, too many kids like Bob will continue to fail--no matter what we do for them in school."
These revealing thoughts came weeks before the onset of the current debate on the benefits of orphanages. Although the thought of more orphanages doesn't sit right with most of us, the evidence of these students' tremendous disadvantages at home came through very clearly.
Another graduate student, a suburban high school teacher, turned his thoughts to his own work: "My class is not one of the priorities in Jon's life. His priorities come from not wanting to be involved in gangs and not wanting to have his house blown up. He doesn't know the capital of Peru and doesn't care about the relationship between Haiti and the United States. It's important that I remember that."
Finally, one graduate student seemed to summarize our group's reactions: "This assignment has caused me to have mixed feelings. Sandy is the type of student who is easily forgotten--the quiet one who never causes any problems, but who is not being successful. So many teachers spend so much time on the students with behavior problems because they disrupt the class. The Sandys of the world are sort of an afterthought, because they are not a disruption. I look at how I've helped Sandy and I feel guilty about some other students I haven't helped in the same way. I know, though, that there's no way to do that with every at-risk student I have."
What my graduate students gained from this experience was the realization that governance and politics in schools are more than abstractions in a book--the words represent tasks that grow in difficulty as real human beings are added to the equation. When these future administrators are leading our schools, I hope they will remember these special students--remember and realize that such children need much more than official rules. They need more than the basics of reading and arithmetic. Suspending or expelling these children is sometimes the easiest answer, but rarely the best.
Many of the contemporary critics of schools haven't been in a school long enough to get to know or understand the Nikis or Mikes or Lennys of today. It's easier to stand on the sidelines and tell school officials and community patrons that schools are failing. A closer look at the realities of schools might make us more understanding of the daily challenges dealt with by school officials.
If we knew more about the realities of schools we might spend less time criticizing them and more time helping them. Perhaps it's time to quit fighting over whether or not we should have prayers in school and start praying for schools.
Vol. 14, Issue 20, Page 40Published in Print: February 8, 1995, as Real-Life Research