The easiest way to describe the type of classes and students I teach would be to describe my school as a whole from the “top” down. At the tippy top is a school within a school called the International Baccalaureate program. This is for the students that smashed their first birthday cake with one hand while reading Chauser with the other. It’s for the kids that relax with a workbook of derivatives and logarithms. It’s also the kids that will RAKE when it’s scholarship season.
I don’t know how many kids are in the IB program, but it’s probably less than 80. I do not teach any IB kids. I don’t think I’m even allowed to talk to them.
From there, we have the kids that don’t want the commitment of IB, but they still want the challenge of Honors classes and being able to finish their high school requirements early so that they can get a few free college credits before graduation. There are quite a few of those, but it’s still not a giant number. Let’s go with 200. It’s just a guess, but it’s probably not too far off. Again, I do not teach these kids. I have a few kids that absolutely COULD go this route, but for a multitude of reasons probably won’t.
There are then the kids that are right in the intellectual / effort middle. They’re smart and they give a lot of effort, but not so much that they can’t binge watch High School Musical: The Series on the weekends while also getting eleven hours a day of screen time on their phones. These students are going to go off to college, maybe starting with community college, perhaps never leaving with anything more than a payment plan. I usually have eight or ten of these kids per semester. They are usually in the top 5% of my classes grade-wise, behavior-wise, and effort-wise.
The fourth group of kids are the ones that just simply struggle with math. They still give effort most days, but they just cannot figure out how in the world the numbers two and three can somehow equal both five AND six. They have a talent that they might already embrace or it’s one they are still searching for, but that talent is not math.
I tell those kids all the time something to the tune of, “There is something in this world that you are going to dominate, and there is a really good chance you haven’t found it yet. But when you do, you will know it and you will be forever changed. If we’re being honest, that thing is probably not math, and my job is not only to teach you math and try to build it into a strength, it’s also to teach you how to be content with whatever you can possibly achieve with math. If it’s not as much as other people, who cares?!?! Math will NEVER define you. But something will. Your job is to learn to do enough math so that math doesn’t stand in your way of finding that something.”
Most of the time, these kids give some effort. Or at the very least, they act like they are because they respect the job I’m doing enough that they know they should at least look busy. But I know most of the time they are sitting there absolutely clueless and I have to fight myself from going over there and doing the work for them. I have about 80 kids per semester. If ten of them come from the last group, forty of them come from this group. Most of my kids struggle mightily with math. And they always have.
And then there are the kids that do not try, do not respect the job I am trying to do, do not care if you have cell phone rules in your class, do not obey seating charts, do not shut up while I am talking, do not pee before class, do not pee when they go to the bathroom during class, do not respect my stuff enough to keep their hands off of it, do not turn in work, do not finish tests, and do not display even the bare minimum of effort needed to cheat. At least cheaters show effort!!
That leaves me with about thirty of these students per semester. And the crazy thing is, I still love them to death. They drive me thoroughly and completely insane, but there are very few that I have ever disliked. And what you have just read is my class makeup EVERY semester of EVERY year. It’s my niche, I guess. But still, as insane as I am slowly becoming (I hope I’m joking,) I can think of only two students in 8 years that I genuinely disliked. And the crazy thing is, if those two would have come to me ANY day and said, “Mr. Lee, I am going to start being a better student,” that kid and I would have begun anew at that very moment.
And that’s the thing that makes me a good teacher. I may not be the best at making sure they’re prepared for the EOC or introducing a ton of “rigor” into my lessons or keeping every day fresh and exciting and different in order to grab their attention – for all of those, I do the best I can with the clientele that I have – but even if my kids hate math, are thus far terrible at math, have no incentive from home to do well in math, or for a multitude of other reasons are not successful in my class, they all like me. To many, I am the best math teacher they’ve ever had, and it has nothing to do with how I teach math.
It has everything to do with the fact that I like them, and I show them that. In turn, they like me. But that doesn’t mean they are good students. With one day to spare before the end of the third quarter, I had 45 of 76 students failing. That’s 59%. For reasons that are often hard for me to understand because I can’t fully empathize with most of them, they simply do not care enough to pass. A lot of them honestly have no idea – and can’t understand – why it would help them to do so.
The only thing most of them see is failure when they think of math, and they simply have no expectations that they can be anything more than that. And we as a school system are enabling them to continue down that path. And in my opinion, it’s our fault they’re on that path. It started for them as soon as they started school.
Here’s what needs to change – in my opinion – for us all to begin seeing a turnaround in education in North Carolina. This will focus mainly on math (and a high poverty Title 1 school) since that is my area of employment (I can’t say “expertise;” I’m an expert at NOTHING.) And the best part about all of these suggestions is that they cost basically NO money to start implementing RIGHT NOW.
(Also, I don’t know why the suggestions below started getting song titles as their suggestion names. It just kinda happened. It means absolutely nothing to the article. I’m just weird. Anyway, on with the suggestions!!)
Suggestion #1: Rehab
Ban cell phones from classrooms statewide. No exceptions. The most overlooked and ignored problem in America today is not opioids or gun violence or viruses, it is fifty million young people whose brains are developing with an addiction. I know a thing or two about addiction, and I can promise you that you do not want one.
So why then are we completely okay allowing fifteen years of our children’s brain development to be spent with an addiction? We’re allowing our children to become addicts. If you know anything about addiction, you know that it is progressive. So what comes next? They turn 25 and get a job and can’t handle life without their addiction for seven to ten hours a day, so suddenly they need something more to be able to cope with life. They didn’t learn coping skills and adaptability skills because they had their coping mechanism and their adaptability stimulant and their babysitter and their best friend right in their hand the whole time.
Ban cell phones from classrooms. Period. No exceptions. Make it a state law. You’ll never ban them from schools altogether, but you can ban them from classrooms. We have a thousand lockers at my school being unused. I know of a really good use for them.
Suggestion #2: Push It
Stop passing kids who did not master the basic material that must be mastered to pass ___ grade. I’m about to give 60’s to close to thirty kids that do not deserve to pass Math 1. Our school system would never allow 60-70% of my students to fail even though that’s how many have not sufficiently come close to mastering Math 1 material. A “D” in Math 1 would be getting 60% of Math 1 close to correct. Far fewer than half have done that.
In most of those cases, however, the burden is on me, not the student. My job is made MUCH more difficult when a student has EARNED their failing grade, because now I have to find new material to give that student so that they can backtrack and see if they can pass with a second chance. It doesn’t matter that I gave them 3+ chances every single day to pass the first time around.
But because failing kids gets expensive for the school system (not to mention the fact that it looks really bad,) it’s better just to push them on through even if they earned their failing grade. It’s not right. If you fail in the real world, you get fired. I’m essentially teaching my students how to get fired because the culture of education in 2020 says that’s what I’m supposed to do. It HAS to change.
And I know somebody is going to come back at me telling me that many of these high poverty students are supporting their families with part time jobs and they’re starving at home or getting beaten or they’re homeless or whatever. And that might be true. I can’t do much about that. But are we really going to say that these kids are so disadvantaged that they don’t qualify for high expectations? Are they not worthy of high expectations? How is that fair to them? It’s all about the culture we create, and we’ve got a culture in need of change.
Suggestion #3: Let it Grow
Stop making students take Math 1 who can’t pass eighth grade math. What are we actually accomplishing with this? The near calcifying feeling that they are failures? Or is it making sure the super biased “school report cards” show the education system failing because lawmakers need to see the proof that our teachers are failing our students?
This is a perfect extension of the long overdue argument that WE HAVE TO STOP PRESSURING KIDS TO GO TO COLLEGE!! But we give them no other option than to follow the same path as those who probably are.
Let’s say a kid hasn’t passed their math EOG in five years. This student is ill-equipped with the prerequisite skills necessary to navigate through Math 1 successfully. So why do we make them take it? They don’t need it. Not yet. That student should be in a math class that helps them GROW. Nothing more, nothing less. That kid needs to grow their math skills.
Right now, I have 76 students. At least half should be in a math class that teaches them all the math they will need in life. It would be a combination of consumer math, personal finance, and basic problem solving involving real world scenarios. The difference would be forty kids who are learning a bunch of lifelong math skills versus forty kids who discovered in math class that they can now make themselves look like a chupacabra with that awesome new Snapchat filter.
As students, they would grow. And that is ALL that matters.
Suggestion #4: Despacito
For almost exactly the same reasons, stop making kids that do not speak English take everything that their perfectly-English-speaking peers take as soon as they land their feet on American soil. Have a year or two that they spend almost solely with an ESL teacher so that the teacher can assess what they know, what they don’t know, how much work is required to get them anywhere close to conversational English and grade level math, and what kind of educational path would be best for them.
I currently teach the ESL Math 1 class (there’s only one such class,) and I have an ESL co-teacher that is in my room most days to translate. There are 16 ESL students in there. Maybe 3 of them have any business even attempting Math 1 curriculum. That is not an indictment on their math ability, it’s an indictment on the level of math that most of them could do before they got to me. In some cases, those students barely went to school in Honduras or Columbia or Mexico or even Yemen (I had two last year and one this year who came here for asylum.) All but three of my ESL students should be in a class similar to the one discussed in #3. They need growth, not a curriculum they are ill-equipped to comprehend.
Suggestion #5: You Can Count on Me
99.9% of all math done from Kindergarten through 8th grade does not require a calculator. Take them away. The human brain was designed to think, and when it thinks, it grows. When multiplication facts are practiced, they are slowly learned. When fractions must be added by hand, suddenly a basic number sense develops.
Over many, many years, these challenges that the brain achieves help it to ripen into one that can solve problems and think abstractly. We are robbing our children of gaining what to many of us is normal brain function because we have become a society that says, “Well, it’s easier just to give them the calculator.”
Well, we have to stop. Take the calculators away. We are robbing our students of basic knowledge and basic number sense. This needs to happen TODAY.
Suggestion #6: Call Me Maybe
A working telephone number must be required of all parents and/or guardians. They must talk to each of their child’s teachers at least once per semester (and yes, email is fine, too.) If they don’t speak to their child’s teacher(s), they do not get a finalized report card. The burden of parental contact is almost solely on the teachers, and that is giving a free pass to the party that in many cases uses public education as free child care. Parental involvement has gotten abysmal, especially at high poverty Title 1 schools. We have to force the issue. This is not asking too much. It’s asking them to be their child’s parents.
Conclusion: Closing Time
I’ve been saying for a couple of years now that there is an expiration date on my time in the classroom. It’s coming. I’ll probably get pretty sour if I go past it. It has nothing to do with my love of teaching either. It has everything to do with the fact that we are not doing what’s in the best interest of most students, and I can’t be a part of that for much longer.
If they earn a failing grade, they must be given it. If they get educational crutches without even knowing they’re crutches, we must take them away and let their brains work and develop. If the state and county continues to bog us down with meaningless paperwork and programs and teaching methods and professional development that is never consistently implemented and ALWAYS changed every year and has a net negative impact on students, at what point do we say, “You know, this is NOT what’s right for children. We are done with this. This place is for educating children, not looking at fourteen different pieces of data to tell us less than we already knew about our own students.”
And if we don’t have the guts to recognize that cell phones DO NOT add anything positive whatsoever to student learning, we cannot expect them to pay attention to a damn word I say.
So much of it is common sense. So much of what we are doing wrong from the state level down to the school level is basic common sense. So why do we get so much of it wrong?