Confronting Social Disadvantage

Poverty and Education (Part II)

Learning

This is a time of year when many students are preparing to graduate from college and join the work force. It’s a time when the gap between the have’s and the have not’s reveals social disadvantages. Students with social capital research opportunities in their field, apply for jobs, learn to network, prepare for interviews and receive support from their immediate social circle (parents, colleagues of parents, family friends, relatives, etc.). They get feedback to strengthen their resumes and guidance on what the job market wants. Students from backgrounds of poverty and others who are the first in their families to finish college need these opportunities too but may not be able to access them easily.

Are we preparing all students well enough to be successful when the time is right? If we give them a strong academic training, will they have the support structures that will open doors? If and when the doors open, will they have what it takes to step in? Students who live in poverty have many challenges to overcome. Are we doing enough to help them gain the tangible and intangible skills and qualities needed to be successful in college and beyond?

Recently, I shared these thoughts with a wise colleague who agreed that students need more than just a good education – they need to be prepared to seize opportunities when doors open for them. She restated my thoughts very simply.

“When opportunity knocks, will they be ready?” — Zula Barnett, Teacher

At a time when unemployment is an issue, potential employers are complaining about an unprepared workforce. Schools have a dual role – to give students the knowledge base that will allow them to choose a college education and gain the ‘hard skills’ the job market needs, and to help them gain the ‘soft skills’ or intangible qualities that will help them succeed in these settings. Schools need to do three things to level the playing field:

(1) Set a high bar for quality work. This will be an expectation in college and later in the work place, so we need to start early, have high expectations and support students in meeting them. This means no shortcuts. We must ask for quality work and not give kids a pass simply for showing up or putting in the effort. We must show them what high standards look like so they understand our expectations and then support them in reaching that level of quality in their work.

(2) Guide students in being courteous, caring, cheerful, empathetic, pleasant, positive, and hard working. We need to teach them how to present themselves with regard to their appearance, verbal skills and writing skills in contexts of opportunity. We need to give them opportunities to engage in teams.

(3) Build connections within the community so that employers become more intentional about reaching out and bringing opportunities to students from backgrounds of disadvantage. When businesses partner with schools to bring in mentors, tutors and volunteers, relationships are built which can lead to networking opportunities as students grow older.

When I hire new staff I search for soft skills – a positive tone, a cheerful attitude, an interest in connecting with others, an enthusiastic spirit and a sense of humor. These are the intangibles that sway my decision. These qualities lift my team and strengthen its resilience. I can train reasonably competent people in the hard skills they will need to do their jobs well.  I can’t say the same about soft skills which are learned and integrated early in life. In every grade, if we make a concerted effort to model these intangible skills in our own behavior, and expect them from students, I have no doubt that these qualities will become ingrained in the culture of our schools, and spill over into society.

We are coaching kids for the game of life! School is about more than just academics. We must be purposeful about growing the soft skills students will need for the rest of their lives. When opportunity knocks, will our kids be able to step out and compete directly with their privileged peers? I hope we make sure that the answer is a resounding yes.

Giving Kids a Chance

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When I started out as a special education teacher, people often said things like, “That is such a noble thing to do.” “You must be such a patient person.” I loved my job. I was trained for it and gained expertise over time. Noble? I didn’t subscribe to that notion. And as far as being patient, I would respond that I was actually quite impatient when it came to wanting my students to learn and succeed!

Teaching is not an easy job. There is a lot that educators want to accomplish and many hurdles stand in the way of our students as they engage in learning experiences. There are hurdles that educators can control and others that they can influence. Still other hurdles persist stubbornly. There are times when we feel like we’re hitting our heads against the proverbial wall and other times when we would like to wave a magic wand and level the playing field for our students.

School reopened yesterday. I love the spring semester because it’s a time when my team works towards wrapping up the year on a successful note while also beginning to prepare for the next school year. At this point, we are gauging how our students have performed since the fall, and we make important decisions to channel their learning and get them ready for a strong finish. We’re halfway through our school year marathon!

My theme for this semester is going to be “Give the kids a chance!” It’s not about diluting the learning environment for kids… it’s about keeping the bar high but being more thoughtful about them as learners. Where did this come from? Well, I’ve been involved in learning something new over break and as a result, received an important, impromptu orientation to the challenges associated with the concept of ‘learning’.

I’ve always wanted to learn to play the guitar. A month ago, I told my husband that in my next life, I’d like to learn to play this wonderful instrument. In his inimitable style, he asked me what was wrong with this life! So, a couple of weeks ago, I ordered Alfred’s Basic Guitar Method and a few days after it arrived, I bought my very first guitar – a used guitar with a lovely sound. Now, I’m learning to figure out notes on the staff, and saying “ouch” as my fingers experience the joy of developing callouses on the guitar strings! Over the weekend, I found myself putting off practicing… I had remembered the pain from the last time I’d picked up the guitar! Thankfully, I recognized that this avoidance was a temporary phase. I chose to purchase the guitar because I wanted to play it, knowing well that it wouldn’t be easy. I also knew that I would persevere.

When I think of the kids who walk into our school every day, I wonder about their learning experiences. They may not literally develop callouses but they still experience challenges. I found myself wondering if, as adults, we are a little removed from the actual experience of learning. Yes, we continue to learn in many ways and now recognize the joys of small and big gains. But do we remember and understand the angst that often accompanies new learning? A sense of avoidance, feeling of monotony, struggle of repetitive practice, awareness of defeat, the effort to persevere, the challenge of seeing connections and figuring things out, impatience with small gains… all of this and more show up before learners experience success. I’ve forgotten how much easier it was for the younger Subha to understand and figure out geometry vs. chemistry, how writing was so much more enjoyable for me than math. There are things that we have an aptitude for and other things we can master if we sweat over them. Oh, how I hate sweating!

As educators, we know a lot about what works in education, but, do we remember the struggles learners experience along the way? Growing up in India, I learned music for about 15 years. I used to perform on stage and I was pretty good at it. Yet, western musical notations make me feel completely ignorant about music. So much for background knowledge, huh? Not exactly, because background knowledge becomes useful if we can find a way to connect it to the new concepts we are learning. So, I’m working on creating connections to bridge what I knew then with what I am learning now. I know it will work for me because now I know more about how I learn and what works for me in the learning process. It won’t be easy, but I know I will make progress.

As adults we all know how tough change is – changes in curriculum, changes in team members, changes in routine – they can all shake our world, cause high levels of stress and put us in a situation where we have to shift gears and learn. Adults often protest ‘change’. But isn’t change after all simply about learning? Learning to adapt in a situation that is new or different, learning to respond to new circumstances or ideas, learning to deal with the new dynamics within our teams. Change seems tough when we have to ‘change’ what we are used to doing. It requires us to learn something new or respond in a different way than we have in the past. Yet, interestingly enough, we don’t call it a ‘learning’ experience. We use the term ‘change’ as though it is an obstacle that we adults have to work through – something that is done to us.

However, when it comes to the world of our students, we don’t call what they experience ‘change’. We speak about ‘learning’ when they are part of the context, as though it is something natural that they should experience and be able to handle because we have taught them what they need to know. The truth is that it’s not so simple. Kids have to deal with ‘change’ in their learning environment – new subjects, new concepts, new friends, new teachers every year who introduce new routines, new contexts and experiences as well as new struggles that will hopefully translate into success.

Learning does not have to be a negative experience. It’s worth remembering that ‘growing pains’ affect kids well beyond the muscle pain associated with this term. ‘Giving the kids a chance’ is something that has new meaning for me right now. I want my team to continue to push our students to aim higher and excel. I also hope that we will be thoughtful and more purposeful about working to help children experience success more frequently, so that they see learning as more than just a collection of struggles and challenges to avoid. Learning is an incredibly rewarding experience, yet it is also pretty complicated given that students arrive at their learning experiences from different places.

As we move towards the outcomes we seek for the end of the year – students attaining and exceeding the goals we have set for them – it becomes important for us to pause and reflect on how learning experiences do not unfold smoothly and effortlessly for students despite our best efforts. Indeed, our aim does not have to be about making learning ‘easy’. It has to be about making learning meaningful. For me, that happens when educators remember that students experience learning in different ways, and often travel on tough and bumpy roads. Our role is to read their journey and help them keep moving in the right direction until their reach first one destination and then another.

“The learning and knowledge that we have, is, at the most, but little compared with that of which we are ignorant.” — Plato

I hope that my team and I will keep this theme in mind as the high we’re feeling now with batteries recharged after a restful winter break slides into moments when we feel like the climb uphill is getting steeper – when we’re hitting our heads against the wall. It would be useful to pause and recognize what students experience as they engage with learning in our classrooms, and respond sensitively to their experiences before we judge them negatively (as unmotivated, apathetic, careless, inattentive and indifferent). I hope in those moments we will look inward and try to remember how we feel when we are learning something new that doesn’t come easily for us. Perhaps, a sense of empathy will allow us to give a new lease to the learning environment in our classrooms,  stretch our students and help them excel.

“I didn’t take this job to give up on you!”

How often have I said this? And often vehemently. Yet, this week I had to reflect on whether or not I meant this unconditionally.

As an elementary principal in an urban school, I have a fire in my belly about the work I do, fueled by a sense of optimism that keeps me afloat and helps me bounce back when things get tough as they are apt to do. My job has its share of ebbs and flows, highs and lows and what keeps me going is the belief that I might make a difference, perhaps leave an impression on the lives of others and stretch them in the direction of possibilities that might enrich their lives in the future. The latter part of that sounds like such a romanticized version of a principal’s role, doesn’t it, given that people often see individuals in my role as the proverbial boogeyman? “Did you know this auntie (in India, the adult friends of a child’s parents are called aunties or uncles) is a school principal?” A scary person, indeed! Others see it as a tough job. I’ve heard the “I wouldn’t want your job for anything…” line often enough, and more so recently given the push and pull educators face from politicians and the community these days. And… I still love this job.

It’s about kids… Kids who come to us with an incredible sense of curiosity about the world they live in. Kids who have an array of talents, often untapped. Kids privileged to have a wealth of experiences, resources and support. Kids who have experienced challenges and trials for which my life experiences bring no reference point. Just as parents often wish for their children a better life than the one they have, I wish for my students the opportunity to be well prepared to do anything they may choose to do in their lives. I hope they will love to learn, and learn how to learn.

In the meantime, the world many of my students live in is a lot like an obstacle course – perhaps a hurdle race. They run and reach a hurdle, they jump over it, run again and reach another one sometimes making it safely to the finish line. In some cases, they are like the novice athlete – not quite making it over the hurdle… knocking it down as they struggle to hone their skills. Often their teachers coach them through these hurdles, occasionally the referee (principal) has to make a call. Was the hurdle knocked over accidentally, or deliberately? Should the athlete be disqualified? And how complicated might things get when the referee sees herself as a coach?

As I work to piece together the slow motion replay in my head when hurdles are knocked over, my goal is not only to help students work through their current obstacle but also guide them so they can figure out a way to deal with the next similar hurdle that stares at them from just a few yards ahead. The kids are sometimes bummed out, and sometimes tough. Often their feelings are bruised and they want to save face. Sometimes they lack the words to share what’s playing in their minds… what they are feeling in their hearts. Some of them carry so much baggage – the unseen kind that for $25 you couldn’t pass on to the airline baggage handler for just a few hours until you get to your destination.

My job is about pushing and pulling, nudging and cajoling, caring and nurturing, lifting others up and working hard to stop them from falling while hoping to inspire and guide them towards new paths – hopefully ones that will be slightly less bumpy. I realized, as I reflected last night, that I have some lines that spill out of me at intervals – in a deliberately kind yet sometimes firm tone, and in a calm voice. Words that mean a lot to me… words that help build trust with my kids and their families… words that let them know I care, even when things are rough.

“You know, you’re way better than that. You’re capable of so much more!”

“I want you to be the best you can be!”

“I often tell other people how smart/bright/talented/creative you are, and I’m not sure they believe me when they see some of the choices you make. Did you know, only YOU have the power to make them believe my words. You can make my words true. You can make my word good by doing the right thing!”

“Do you want people to see you as a kind, caring, positive, happy, cheerful and generous person? Or do you want them to think of you as someone who bullies others, hurts others or does not care? You are the only one who has the power to make that happen. You know I’m right, don’t you?” 

“Do you believe that I care about you? Do you believe that I respect you?”

“Have you ever heard me yell at you, put you down or say mean or disrespectful things? I know how to be grumpy, I can yell pretty loudly, I know a lot of mean words, and I am pretty angry about what you did, but I choose not to yell or scream at you. How can I ask you to do the right thing if I don’t?”

(My family likely wishes I could stick with this at home! Yes, this is my big goal… one I’m still working towards. But for now, I’ve stuck by these words at school for over two decades with no slip up.)

And for the moments when they knock down the toughest and tallest hurdles, unable to summon up the skills to jump over them, I’ve said this:

“The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think and change what you’ve been doing. I wouldn’t ask you to do something you couldn’t do, right? And you don’t need me to keep telling you things you already know. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you. Count on us.” 

Inch by inch, and sometimes with tinier steps we move forward together – building trust, sharing lighthearted moments, caring words, smiles and compliments. In most situations, parents see that we want the best for their kids. Yet, occasionally, that hurdle turns into a wall that one of my kids slams into. One of those “Please don’t put me in a situation where you don’t give me a leg to stand on and bail you out” walls… where I have no choice but to don the referee’s striped shirt. Yes, we all earn consequences – good or bad – for the choices we make. And I don’t believe in the good kid/bad kid syndrome – I believe kids are generally good yet may make bad decisions (yes, yes, those rose-tinted glasses are out there for all to see right now). Those walls sometimes bring me moments when I feel like my bag of tricks has run out. When I wish I had done just one more thing to prepare a kid for the hurdle ahead of him/her – one that is so obviously looming ahead of a child who is unable to make the right decision at the right second to jump over it, or to summon up the control to tackle the impending crash with a spirit of sportsmanship.

Ah, so much for a euphemistically written post! There is much to say about the stance one wants to take as a school leader, while dealing with the trials that are part and parcel of a leadership role that is ultimately about people – young people – and therefore comes with a complex play book and rule book. Donning the referee shirt symbolically and worrying that one has moved away from the coaching role one believes in implicitly, while plagued by a fear… that my word might not have been good. “I’ll never give up on you.” Really? Unconditionally? I’d like to think so. Yet our time together is so fleeting, often made even more so by the mobility that winds kids through multiple schools in a matter of months or years; or by the transitions from elementary to middle to… How do I make good on my word? When do I keep my promise? How much time will I get?

Reflecting on what we do in some sense becomes second nature when we care and want to do more and do better, right? And in the midst of those reflections creep in the gremlins of doubt and worry. “Should I have…?” “Did I do…?” “What else could/should I have…?” I do believe it is healthy to go through this process of reflecting on our actions as leaders and educators. It’s tough, but we can come out stronger on the other side. Getting there takes some time and work, and there are also moments when I need to lean on the wisdom of others.

The words that helped me bounce back to coaching mode came from President Obama’s commencement speech given yesterday at Barnard College (a women’s college affiliated with Columbia University) – a speech shared on a friend’s Facebook wall today. A great speech I know I will share with my students as we journey ahead together. And his words that helped me shed the striped shirt?

“My last piece of advice — this is simple, but perhaps most important: Persevere. Persevere. Nothing worthwhile is easy. No one of achievement has avoided failure — sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don’t quit.”

He didn’t really need to tell me something I already knew, but I needed to hear it today! And… my learning and growing continues. I know again, that I’m far from quitting, and I won’t let my kids quit.  I realize that I might have to switch shirts again as I get my kids ready for the world they live in, yet, even as I do, I will keep saying to them, “The easiest thing for me to do would be to give up on you. But I didn’t take this job to give up on you. If you want to get me off your back, then stop and think, and change what you’ve been doing. You have so many people who care about you at school and want you to do well. We’re here for you.” 

And, we’ll always be here. The best gift will be, if over time, unbeknownst to us, they remember that as they play the game of life.