Thursday, September 13, 2012

Variables NOT Excuses

        Let me start this post off with a few declarations. I think teaching is the most challenging profession there is today. I think there are so many dynamics that impact our work, that it is rare to be able to do the same thing over time. I think we are blessed with people who choose to become teachers as they are truly able to change lives. I think we are all difference makers.
        Of all those statements, the last one only becomes inaccurate if we let it. And we let it by rallying around the excuses that are prevalent and become reasons why we might believe that success is only for those who deserve/earn it. I have heard many school share that they believe in "success for all" but once we scratch below the surface, the exceptions roll out. With some variation depending on locale, here are the reason most offered for why success can't be reached by some students - poverty, second language learner, single parent, First Nations (Native American), minority race. This despite the lack of research that would validate any of these as absolute blocks to student achievement and growth. Buffum, Mattos, and Weber (2012) state it this way

"Are minority students born with a diminished capacity to learn at high levels? Does learning any language besides English at birth genetically alter a student's ability to learn at high levels? Does poverty irreversibly alter a student's potential to learn? Of course not! A student's ethnicity, native language, and economic status do not reduce the child's innate capacity to learn. These misconceptions are part of the cultural beliefs and assumptions of far too many schools, however, and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the students these schools serve."  

        I am not suggesting that the information we have and know about kids should be blindly ignored. Just as I would not expect a patients' medical history to be ignored by a Doctor on subsequent visits. In that analogy, the Doctor also does not declare that the patient is never going to get better because of the existing conditions. In our world, the information we have about students should be regarded as variables. They clearly have impact on the learning environment for children. A lack of proper nourishment and rest affects results. A lack of a home environment conducive to learning affects results. A lack of fluency in the language of instruction affects the results. Fortunately, high quality instruction, well designed interventions, and some of the best adults I have met in my life (teachers) have a far greater impact on improving the life chances of students. Let's keep the clarity around these variables and steer clear of rallying around the excuses - no matter how significant they may appear to be.


  1. Nice post, Tom, I couldn't agree more! In a world filled with variables, if there is a choice between things one might worry about, it's far better to choose the ones we can control than the ones we can't.

    My mechanic never sees a car that is in perfect, well-maintained condition; usually those vehicles have very little need of his skills. What he gets are cars that haven't been taken care of, what are low on oil, etc. In those cases, his skills, knowledge, and passion for his work bring them back to life. People who own those cars rely on him and admire what he does; the people who own the new cars don't know he's alive.

    It's the same with kids; if they already knew everything, were surrounded by loving communities, and had all that they needed ... they wouldn't need us.

    "If kids come to us from strong, healthy functioning families, it makes our job easier. If they do not come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job more important.”
    -Barbara Coloroso

    Nobody is arguing that these other variables aren't important - but the research is pretty conclusive that, all else being equal, kids with thoughtful, intentional teachers, carefully crafted and managed learning experiences, in supportive school environments will do better than those who are without those things.

    The calling of the teacher, just like my mechanic, is to work with the material that comes to us and use our knowledge, skills and passion to breathe as much life into our task as we can.

    "Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being."
    -Johann W. von Goethe

  2. Wow Gerry! Awesome comments. You have made this post better with your feedback. Thanks for taking the time.

  3. Great article and response. I think the definition or standard for success is what tricks us sometimes. I know I can teach. I know I love teaching kids. I know my subject area. I know the students who walk in my room will grow. Sometimes the growth or success most needed may not be academic in nature. It may look like self awareness, a kid who just realized he can feel and who has learned to voice what he is feeling. The academic growth will be there, and if the student continues to be in a good learning environment with great teachers, and his personal life is not too overwhelming, then I suppose he will be what we call successful.

  4. Thanks Michelle. This reminds me of the Chinese proverb "The one who plants the tree rarely gets to enjoy its' shade." This is so true for us in education. We may not always see the end growth but we should always be committed to the possibility of the growth.