Blog written by Dr. Brian E. McDaniel, 2018 California Teacher of the Year
Numerous issues challenge public education, such as closing the achievement gap and helping students out of systemic poverty; however, ensuring every student’s success is the most pressing concern. Low achievers have seemed to fall by the wayside. Many students leave our care feeling under-served, undervalued, and under-prepared for the real world and people who believe they cannot succeed often live up to their own expectations.
Many of our most vulnerable students are goose-stepped out of reaching their potential by being assigned a label. Oftentimes, children accept that they are only as good as the label placed upon them. Carmen was labeled a troublemaker in seventh grade. Because of her profanity laden defiance, she was removed from every class except music. Though she failed all of her classes and was recommended for expulsion three different times, this did not dissuade me from finding her strengths. During a Student Study Team meeting, I highlighted her talent as a natural peer leader with exceptional critical thinking and verbal communication skills. Everyone in the room, including Carmen, was awestruck. That day the road opened for Carmen and she began rising to the high expectations placed on her by one person. Carmen’s eighth grade year was stellar. She stayed out of trouble, was a member of our national championship choir, and earned principal’s honor roll all year. Carmen’s journey could have ended much differently if she had accepted the original label.
Actively, we need to focus equally on students who are withering and falling between the cracks. As teachers, we have the power to create success through opportunities. Bronx, a high functioning special needs student, struggled through school and often expressed that he was “just not good at anything.” Though Bronx tried every instrument in the band with no success, I was determined to find his island of competence. Finally, I created a position for him to be our “equipment commander.” He learned how to load and unload music equipment for tours and stage performances. In this position, Bronx was pivotal in the success of the entire music program and coordinated all performance logistics. He developed rapport with every member of the band letting them know he was there to support them, and, during his senior year, mentored younger students to replace him after he was gone. The knowledge and experience he gained during his high school years landed him a job as a stagehand in a performing arts theater in Oregon.
If a person has a square peg and a round hole, cut a square hole. Both Bronx and Carmen felt that they were failures. My students are my life, my measurement of success. When my students feel like a failure, then I have failed them. Never should a child leave our classroom feeling less than they arrived. Every day, we need to find new ways for every student to feel success as it only takes one great experience to change the trajectory of a child’s life.