As we dive headfirst into Autumn, which sounds much more poetic than Fall, the school year is very much underway, regardless of whether or not students or teachers want to believe it.
If the school year were a giant red, white, and blue bus taking off for a long journey, I would say that by now, the second week in October, the wheels are spinning at nearly full speed. Many of the students are safely and quietly seated, as they had been instructed from the first day; yet some are still just now getting to their seats as the bus sways and bounces them around the narrow aisle. Even worse, a handful of students are still clinging onto either sides of the bus and bus entrance, trying not to fall off. I also feel like I need to add the few students that seem to be blatantly clawing to exit this bus, into this lovely, albeit chaotic metaphor.
Over a week ago I attempted to describe how after the first few, calmer weeks of the school year, students throughout our middle and high school started testing the boundaries of what they could get away with. Now, after a few more weeks, similar problems persist, but have taken a backseat (keeping with the bus theme) to students who are flat out failing their classes.
When I say failing their classes, one might think, “Oh I know the feeling of failing a class, I got a 62 once in Blah Blah”, or “I remember failing that tough Chemistry test in high school”. No offense, but these thoughts cannot compete with some of the epic failing that is going on right now with some students. A few examples of the types of bombing that some of my kids are encountering a mere month into 8th grade look like this: 8.2% in English, 16.3 in English, 35.1 in Social Studies, 23.3 in Math etc. Take those numbers in for a minute.
Today I helped check a few students’ grades online and the looks of utter shock and awe on their jaw-dropped little faces was so sad that it was almost funny. But after I went back to think about it, and realized that these students don’t even have their passwords to check their grades because they are that oblivious and spacey, I came back to reality and understood that it is not funny at all. Sometimes all you can do it laugh, have one more pep-talk with them about coming for extra help for their organization, and attempt to call their parents again.
I want to take this moment to state something that I don’t think that I have deliberately said in the history of this blog. It takes a really unique, specific teacher to successfully teach in New York City’s Public Schools. I, by no means, believe that I am this teacher at all (the most kids I teach at once is 12), but I’ve come to recognize a few major differences between a great teacher in the suburbs (where I grew up), and the city. This statement will hopefully be connected to my following thoughts.
Back to the major frustration that is currently resting on my mind, a great deal of our students (and students in low-income areas all over) have not developed the study skills or organizational habits to succeed in middle and high school. Not only are a majority of these kids behind in their basic math, reading, and writing when they arrive to middle school, but possibly even worse, they have not yet learned how to complete homework, study for a quiz, test, or even keep a folder for each class separate and neat.
In the wealthy suburbs, if a teacher comes to class with an engaging and effective lesson, assigns homework, and gives reasonable tests to assess his/her students, you’d consider this teacher proficient because most of the students would DO THEIR WORK. In my experience working with students who are that much farther behind in the numerous aforementioned fields, the same teacher in a poorer area could have a very nice and well-behaved class, and still wind up with over half of his students failing because of lack of homework, lost materials, and poor preparation for assessments.
I’ll wrap up this post without with a magical strategy that works for all city teachers in improving their students’ school habits, but solely with a hope that people reading will understand how much of an uphill battle it is to actually reach the majority of a struggling class. It’s amazing how many more obstacles to success there are when teaching students who have never learned the ‘right’ way to succeed in school, and who often have very little support at home.
I know that all of my students will improve (can you really get worse than 8.2%?) over the next few months. I think that the trick now is to continue to be creative and persistent in keeping my students afloat while the leaves change color and fall in the coming October weeks.