I currently have the unique experience of being both a teacher and a student. As a middle school band director by day and a doctoral student by night, I find that the opportunity to teach while taking classes can often be a juggling act. I have always enjoyed being a student, but I also had very few roadblocks standing in my way; I grew up in a supportive family who encouraged me to get good grades, stay out of trouble, and complete my homework. While I’ve always known that some of my students experienced difficulties outside the classroom that prevented them from paying attention, I don’t think I ever truly understood why a student would lack the motivation to be successful. Until two months ago, that is.
When Hurricane Harvey struck in August, my wife, pets, and I were forced to evacuate our house by boat. We ended up losing our home, cars, and most of our possessions. Despite being safe and taking comfort from the support of friends and fellow teachers, the experience changed me as a student.
For the first time, I had mental roadblocks. When I would sit down to read, I could not comprehend the words on the page. When I attempted to type a paper, I could not find the motivation to complete the project. My mind would instantly drift to the issues we were facing and to flashbacks of the disaster that we went through. This was the case despite the fact that the doctorate is something I have aspired to achieve for years.
A Better Understanding
As I lay awake at night, I drew connections between my current situation and the issues many students experience, not just the impacts of the flood—that was now the easy part to comprehend—but other roadblocks that are less easy to see. Apart from natural disaster, poverty, racism, depression, bullying, divorce, and other complex issues weigh heavily on many students’ minds. These roadblocks are especially hard to address when they are not visibly present.
It was not until Hurricane Harvey that I got a glimpse of the mentality of struggling students."
Throughout my entire teaching career, I never really understood how students could sit in class and do nothing when given time to practice, or decline to participate, or refuse to turn in a homework assignment—even if they were given several opportunities. It was not until Hurricane Harvey that I got a glimpse of the mentality of struggling students. I can think back on how I would tell students to be better and work harder, thinking that they were simply being lazy or entitled.
I used to believe that if we helped students with external factors—giving them food, providing transportation, giving them after-school library access, or providing them a safe and comfortable learning environment—that the pathway to learning would open and the issues on their minds would magically disappear. I now know this is far from the case. I can’t imagine feeling the way I felt after Harvey and being asked to concentrate or to learn a topic in which I had no interest.
The ‘Life Preserver’ Students Need
Support does make a difference for learning, to some extent. In my own experience, I knew that if I did not have a loving wife, professors working with me, fellow classmates encouraging me, or friends to stay with, I would have dropped out of my program. Thanks to a support system, I feel like I can continue to tread water with a life preserver until I am mentally ready to swim. At the very least, this network has prevented me from sinking.
This is why, since the storm, I have put even more of an emphasis on building relationships with my students. I pass out questionnaires to get to know them better and have been to football games and piano recitals to show them that I genuinely care about them and their interests. I want to show students that they are a part of something bigger than themselves and that they have people who will support them, even when they can’t be on task.
I am also more mindful of looking for situations that may be impacting my students and try to consistently remind them that I care about them and believe in them. For students who are struggling, I am more understanding and patient and have learned not to take students’ apathetic attitudes personally.
It is critical for teachers to give students grace as well as tools to surmount these mental roadblocks. Even when it feels that your support is not making a difference, it could very well be the only life preserver that student is holding on to.