Have you ever had the type of week that causes you to question your own convictions? Or the type of week that causes you to pause and reflect on your own fundamental belief system. As leaders, we often have to deal with situations that we know, regardless of how we approach them, are going to result in some people not feeling supported. Navigating such situations can be both challenging and emotionally charged. The situation becomes even more treacherous when it involves questioning a teacher for failing a student for what they believe is a lack of effort on the part of the student and a parent who believes lack of communication on the teacher’s part played a role in the student’s failure.
It is in these moments that leaders must decide to either leave through the back door or take a seat on the front porch.
I recently found myself in the middle of a situation in which I felt strongly that I needed to advocate for a student with an I.E.P. whose parent was told with two and a half weeks left in the marking period their child was going to likely fail the course. My intent is not to expand on all of the details of this situation or to be critical of a teacher about what they did or didn’t do, but rather share with others where I believe we fell short and what we can all learn from this experience.
1. Seek to understand why the student won’t do the work:
I truly believe that no child wants to be a failure. Over the years I have worked with hundreds of reluctant learners and students who stated they didn’t care if they passed or not. What I have learned is that they do care, but they lack the basic skills or the confidence to be successful. Admittedly, there are other factors that come into play such as a lack of self-discipline, work ethic, or a commitment to overcome the challenges they are facing. However, I would argue that all of these combined are related to the student not believing they can do the work (and perhaps recognizing they lack the basic skills) which then results in what appears to be an apathetic attitude towards the subject matter or school. Therefore, establishing a trusting relationship with struggling students in order for them to feel comfortable enough to share their personal struggles is a must if we are going to help some students experience success.
2. We must maintain ongoing communication with the parent(s ) whose child(ren) are struggling:
There is no excuse for not contacting a parent whose student is failing a class. In fact, there should be ongoing communication that focuses on working together to help the student be successful. Even if we recognize early on the parent(s) is/are not able to help, out of respect we should maintain communication as a courtesy. I always share with teachers that we will end up having the conversation at some point, so it is better to have it on the front end than on the back end after the student has failed and the conversation now takes on a different tone. And let me say this. The most effective communication is face to face or a conversation over the phone. I have seen too many conversations over email go south in a hurry so at all costs, avoid conversations about a student’s poor performance in your class over email.
3. Every kid needs a champion:
It is my belief that all kids, regardless of race, socio-economic class, ethnicity, perceived ability, attitude, etc., should be held to the highest standard for learning when it comes to their academics and/or their behavior. By not holding all students to a high standard, what we are saying is that we don’t believe you are able to learn or act appropriately or we don’t care whether you learn or act appropriately or not. Why do we accept anything but their best? It is usually the result of a student’s perceived attitude or poor behavior that school personnel use as an excuse to give up on a student. And if I am honest about my feelings here, in my experience the most susceptible kids who adults give up on are poor kids, kids with behavior disorders, and minority kids. Simply put, every child deserves a champion to advocate for them and believe in them.
4. Maintain high standards, but recognize it is okay to treat kids differently
Have you ever heard a teacher make the following comment? “Well, it is not fair to the other students if I start making exceptions for this student who didn’t even try to do the work.” Or another example, “It is not fair to the other kids who turned in their work on time if I allow this student to receive credit even though they didn’t care enough to do it the first time around.” What is interesting about these comments is the word “fair.” For those who are interested, I would encourage you to read Rick Wormeli’s book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal, to help better understand the importance of leveling the playing field for all kids, especially for our struggling learners. It doesn’t need to be all or nothing. Push kids to learn at high levels and don’t be afraid to make exceptions for some kids who may need extra time or extra help to complete the required work. But whatever you do, hold them accountable for learning. If we have done a good job of seeking to understand why they won’t do the work, then we can begin to put the necessary support systems in place to make sure they do the necessary work at an acceptable level that demonstrates learning has occurred.
Fair Isn’t Always Equal
5. Recognize it is okay to ask for help; talking to the student isn’t enough:
The amount of support that some of our students need in order for us to see even the smallest of gains in learning sometimes can appear to be an overwhelming task. This is reason enough for us to accept the fact that the toll on one person may be too great. Therefore, we must be willing to look at a student(s) who is failing and say to ourselves, “This is not right,” “I don’t feel good about this,” “We need to do something else,” “This isn’t working,” etc. In our particular situation that I described above, we had at least six adults who played a part in watching a student fail, yet they all believed that they had done all they could to help the student be successful. When asked specifically what they had done to help the student be successful, all responded by saying they had talked to the student and told him what he needed to do in order to pass the class. What we failed to do on the part of the student, was to get all six adults together in a room with the parent and the student and come to an agreement with the student on what a plan of success would look like and agree on what supports the student would need in order to be successful.
By the end of the week, I was literally sick to my stomach. For one, my heart went out to this student because I recognized that as a system, we had failed him. Two, I knew that my staff had the best of intentions and felt they were pushing him along and encouraging him to do what he needed to do to pass the class, but the student had not taken responsibility for his own learning and he would now have to learn a tough lesson. I knew the right thing to do was to have a conversation with each person and walk through where in my opinion we had failed the student. Not a conversation I was looking forward to because I knew I would take some hits along the way because some teachers would not feel supported, feel that it would not be fair to the other students who had complied, or that I was rewarding a kid who had not put forth the necessary effort to be successful. No one ever said being a principal was going to be easy. Sometimes we have to be willing to take the arrows and advocate for those who don’t know how to advocate for themselves.
My biggest struggle when I learned this student was going to fail this class was reflecting back and recognizing that I was that kid when I was in high school. I wanted my teachers to understand why I wasn’t doing the work. I wanted them to hold me to a high standard, not turn away and tell another adult I wasn’t worth it. I wanted them to see that I lacked the confidence and belief that I could do the work. I wanted them to know I wasn’t lazy or lacked discipline. I thank God for one man, my associate principal Mr. Morgan, who took the time to advocate for me. I will forever be grateful and indebted to him because he believed in me and made the decision to be my champion. Without him, I would never have graduated from high school or certainly not be in the role I am today as principal of a high school.
So now you understand why I have to sit on the front porch.
It’s one thing to say we have high expectations for kids…but another to say I will be here to help you… no matter your struggles! – Salome Thomas-El