I teach at-risk students—considered, by some, a trendy thing to do. The government pours money into programs for the students. The media decries the ones who don’t make it and celebrates the ones who overcome.
I’ve had these students in my classroom throughout my teaching career. I’ve had students who are gangbangers and serving time. I’ve also had Ms. America and students who went on to top-tier universities. I’ve had students from homes with plenty and those that are lacking. I’ve had students of single parents, raised by surrogates, those who are only children, middle children, firstborn, and the “baby” of the family. I’ve had students who were overprotected and overindulged. I’ve had students who had to raise themselves, their siblings, and their parents.
I’ve seen a lot in my career, and I don’t have many “aha” moments anymore. I hope it’s not because I’m jaded or cynical. It isn’t because I know it all. I don’t have the explanations for students who study but don’t test well; or who chronically don’t turn in homework; or lack skills, but refuse to give up; or who quit just before they figure it out; or who make learning look effortless. If I had those explanations, I’d be on TV talking about my book or touting my answers as the path toward educational utopia. Those experts get paid to travel and talk about problems that exist today.
Me? I’m just a teacher.
I battle ignorance, apathy, lack of vision, lack of motivation, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, disorganization, and a bad memory on a daily basis. I don’t have enough degrees and have never been elected to public office, so much of what I say may not seem important. My view is minuscule. I can’t see the landscape with trends and data points. I just see the trenches. All I know is Joey left his house last night because he and his dad got into it. He finally went home after he thought his dad was asleep. I don’t know where Joey is today.
I know Annie is flunking every class except for music (a mid-D), and her mom doesn’t know why she’s no longer the B-C student she once was. Her counselor doesn’t know why she’s apathetic.
I know Mary missed the week before her state tests because her mom decided to visit a relative. She missed practice tests, reviews, and tutoring.
She also missed the last three days of summer school and took a zero on her final because she wanted to go on a family trip that couldn’t wait until the session was over.
I know a colleague had to pick up Meredith and bring her to school because she missed the bus. Meredith can’t afford to miss school. She’s about to fail for excessive absences. Meredith tells everyone she will be going to college next year. I’m hoping she ends up with enough credits to graduate from high school. She’s living with a younger friend who dropped out of school as a teen mom. Meredith said it’s “a little weird” having a friend at her house with a baby.
I’ve had students like these for a long time. Most days, they go home with me—in my mind. I wake up thinking about how to reach them or wondering if they are making wise choices. I did have an “aha” moment recently: I realized I teach at-risk kids; that’s all I’ve ever taught; that’s all any of us teach. Each student who crosses the classroom threshold is at risk. They may not be “at risk” according to the definition the government requires for the program your administrator wants. They may not seem “at risk” to themselves or their parents, but they are.
Every child, adolescent, or young adult who enters our school doorways is at risk of not developing his or her potential. I’ve never heard an elementary student say, “I want to make meth when I grow up,” or “I can’t wait until I’m old enough to go to prison,” or “When I’m a teen mom, I can really play house.”
How many students will we write off because we didn't go the extra mile? How many times have we decided which students were worthy of extra attention or encouragement?"
Early on, children have bold dreams that we almost laugh at, though maybe we disguise our response with a grin that they may interpret as encouragement, when we know we’re patronizing them. They want to make it. They want to have it, do it, enjoy it, taste it, live it, love it!
Most of them can’t consider a reality where their dreams won’t come true. For a long time, they are of the age of why-shouldn’t-it-be-true. If they can imagine it, it must be possible. Then they mature to I-hope-it-will-be-true, followed by I-wish-it-were-true. Eventually, they discard the dream.
Maybe they don’t have the right skills from preschool, or the right ZIP code, or don’t look right, or they talk differently, or learn differently, or lack parental resources, or didn’t get the right teacher, or don’t qualify for special services, or ... fill in the blank. We use lots of factors or excuses to rationalize why some kids make it and others don’t.
The bottom line is that today, not tomorrow, I’m going to view each student in those desks differently. If I view each of them more as what they can become—instead of where they are now or where they need to be before I ship them off to someone else—I might work with greater urgency so their dream doesn’t crumble before my eyes. If I never truly challenge them, I am responsible for that untapped potential.
If I view each student as at risk, I might make more calls to parents who want to help, but may not know how. I might contact more colleagues who have strategies to reach those I haven’t. I might take more seminars, read more books, or watch more videos.
What disturbs me is, what would happen if I didn’t take this view? What if we don’t take this view? How many students will we write off because we didn’t go the extra mile? How many times have we decided which students were worthy of extra attention or encouragement? How many times have we shot down a dream because we expected too little? How many times have we let our own frustration spew, or felt as though our comfort and convenience were more important than a student’s?
If you already had this figured out, you are to be commended. I wish we could have met long ago. If this has caused you to reflect, you are also to be commended. Those who take time to refine their craft will find a better way to reach the students who didn’t get it the first time, or the second, or however many times they needed. I’m sorry it took so long for me to get here, but I’m thankful that I see my students now. It’s got to make a difference. There are too many students at risk of being left behind for it not to.
A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 2011 edition of Education Week as Reflections From the Classroom: Every Child Is At Risk