It was at a intervention meeting, where her child's teachers (including me) and the grade-level counselor had gathered to strategize how better serve her child, that she said to me from across the table:
"You didn't do your job. You were supposed to fix my child. Why didn't you fix him?"
She said it with steel in her eyes and barbs in her voice. She was simmering near her boiling point and I started wondering if anyone else in the room knew the extension to reach the school resource officer.
Everyone was flabbergasted. She went on about how at the summer orientation I talked about all the things I do in class to help struggling students: extra support to break down complex tasks, face-to-face writing conferences, online resources, peer support, modified texts...the list went on. In truth, I had done all those things for her son. I had offered these to her child, yet her child still was failing.
Isn't it always the case that we think of the right thing to say well after the moment has passed? That moment passed six years ago, but here goes:
"Ma'am, I'd be more than happy to share with you the reason I didn't fix your child...
The only one who can fix your child is himself. He chose not to be fixed."
Sure, I could have lit some much better fireworks, but I'd rather opt for the truth over hyperbole.
To me, this is the truth: I can use every best practice and be the most engaging teacher on the planet, but ultimately, it is the child who must pick up the pen and put ink to paper. I can connect them with every high-tech gizmo and every resource to meet their needs, but ultimately, it is the child who must log in and choose to place fingers on the keyboard.
I tell my freshmen: I am writing you a check for a million dollars, and some of you are not walking over to take it from my hands. That is a choice.
To be educated is a choice.
And anyone who thinks they can force a teenager to "make the right choice" has clearly never had kids of their own or been a teacher.
Of course, we try very, very hard to help students make the right choices. We create curriculum and programming and supports which guide students toward those better choices. What we cannot do, though, is make the choice to succeed for them.
Sure, some kids have barriers to success. Perhaps hundreds of those kids have passed through my classroom over the years. Many of those kids, with barriers seemingly insurmountable, succeeded with flying colors not because of anything magical I may have done. They succeeded because they chose to. In spite of reading disabilities and ADHD, they chose to succeed. In spite of parents at the dinner table calling them ugly and stupid and a waste of their breath to even talk about, they chose to succeed. They chose to do that assignment, and they chose to ask for help when they were confused. Maybe something I did helped them make that better choice, but it was that child who made the choice.
When we look at data, testing, and whatever else we use to judge a school's effectiveness, we cannot disregard this factor. I've heard rumors of kids who left their WASL (Washington Assessment of Student Learning) tests blank as a statement against a math teacher they did not like. I know many kids who admit to giving minimal effort on the science WASL because of the perception that it "doesn't count."
The data to prove this idea of student choice? In the year prior to the reading and writing WASLs being required for graduation, our building's pass rate for reading was 76%, writing was 77% and math was 55%. The year the requirement was put into effect, the pass rates jumped to 90%, 90% and 69%, respectively. Statewide, the numbers jumped as well. Did the teachers all over the state suddenly learn to teach in that one year? Doubtful. Kids chose to take the tests more seriously...and yes, they were very open in telling us that.
I used to beat myself up horribly when my students wouldn't finish homework or master the skills I'd tried to teach. As I've matured as an educator, I've had to learn to ask myself: did I give them every reasonable opportunity to learn? Did I adjust, give feedback, explore alternative means of achieving the learning goal? Did I do everything I could have done to clear a pathway to success for that student? If I could honestly answer "yes," I had to learn to absolve myself of the responsibility of that F or that missing assignment. Ultimately, it was beyond my control.
We need to keep this in mind every time we examine data on student success and turn our pitchforks on failing schools and selfish teachers.
Sometimes, we need to admit that the only ones who can "fix" our students are themselves.