Volume II Issue III
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Whatever it Takes!
Recently I heard a statistic on the radio that really got my attention. The announcer stated that 37% of the adults in a large American city were “functionally illiterate.” Since I have dealt exclusively with children in my career in public education, I hadn’t really taken the time to think about what happened to our students once they became adults. I couldn’t shake that statistic as I thought about the fact that one in three adults could not read. I wondered why this had occurred. What happened to these adults when they were students in school? Did they just give up or did the adults in their lives give up on them? Did they become disenchanted with school because they felt that it did not offer anything for them? As educators, did we do everything in our power to support these individuals when they were children in our schools? And finally, what were their daily lives like as they tried to function in a competitive and fast-paced world as a non-reading adult?
As public school educators, it is our mandate to do everything we can think of to ensure that the students in our charge are experiencing success and learning. It is unacceptable to “allow students to fail.” A fellow principal has a sign that hangs in his office that reads, “Whatever It Takes.” It has become his mantra as he works with students, parents and his professional staff. Not only has he encouraged adults who work with children to “think outside the box,” he has challenged them to “act outside the box.” The bottom line is that we cannot give up on our students.
So how should adults proceed in order for their students to experience success? I heard a principal share a story about how she approached the subject of high expectations and success for all students with her faculty. She talked about several lines of dialogue from the movie, “Apollo XIII.” At one point in the film, the astronauts become stranded in space and the message relayed back to earth is “Houston, we have a problem.” She emphasized the word “we” in the message. She made the connection to her school by stressing that in our schools, we do not work in isolation. We must work together to problem solve, to collaborate with other personnel in the school, and to keep looking for that vital ingredient that will motivate a student. All personnel in the school – administrators, counselors, teachers, secretaries, social workers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians – should have a stake in the educational success of our students. In my career I have known many instances where the right adult at the right moment has made the difference we were all searching for. A second line of dialogue from “Apollo XIII” is Houston’s response to the problem of the stranded astronauts, “Failure is not an option.” The principal challenged her staff by asking, “What if we approached our jobs as educators everyday with that idea in mind? What if we agreed that we would tirelessly devote our energies to support each and every student to achieve and learn?”
Some schools have accepted the mission of not allowing students to fail. One principal charged his staff to “get in the way” of recalcitrant or unproductive students and to force them to carry out their responsibilities. He not only “talked the talk but walked the walk” by taking responsibility for five students himself. He met with each student regularly, kept tabs on their work habits and achievement levels, and did not let up on his mission to see that the students made academic progress. Another principal devised a list of potential failures in the late winter, and urged all adults in the building to be creative in meeting these students’ academic needs. Some students avoided their responsibilities; some students had a history of failure and had simply fallen into the mode of not trying; some students worked hard but could not see the results of their efforts; some students were inconsistent with their work ethic; and some students had no idea they were failing because they simply ignored reality. The school decided to address the problem head on. A primary focus was on making sure that the students attended school every day. We all know that you can’t learn if you’re not there. The school devised a plan which included conferencing with individual students, enlisting the consistent cooperation of parents, and, in some cases, driving to a student’s home and bringing the student to school. As the plan unfolded, an adult met with each individual unsuccessful student and devised a plan that would lead to more success. In some cases, adults who did not have the responsibility of teaching class all day worked with students one-on-one before, during and after school. Teachers went to great lengths to communicate with parents (both through phone calls and via e-mail) to gain their support in having students complete homework and other assignments. Several teachers met students at the front door of the school at the end of the day and escorted them back to their rooms for after school help. Still other teachers consulted with students the first thing each morning to check for homework completion and to get their day off to a good start. The bottom line is that keeping kids from failing became a concerted, schoolwide effort on the parts of all the adults in the building. By the end of the year, the number of failures had diminished significantly.
There are some educators who feel that students should be allowed to fail, and that failure will teach them an important “life lesson.” In my 36 years in public education, I have never known a student who thanked a teacher or other professional educator for allowing him or her to fail. Conversely, I have known students who have returned to a former school to say “thank you,” after they had matured and learned the importance of taking responsibility for their actions because an adult had “pushed them” to face their responsibilities and complete their work.
We cannot underestimate the importance of having our students experience success. Success leads to increased confidence, a greater sense of optimism, a renewed desire to succeed, the possibility of self-analysis in failure, and an increased sense of self efficacy and effort. If we simply allow students to fail, a sense of pessimism will persist, they will continue to expect negative results, a sense of hopelessness will set in, they will become self critical as they continue to fail, and their level of effort will decrease, and eventually disappear. They will most likely become just another statistic.
Although I couldn’t put faces on those 37% of adults who could not read, I could picture the faces of children with whom I had recently worked. As a principal, I realized that I had the ability to inspire and convince the adults in my building to devote themselves to bringing about success for these children. It is an exhausting, never ending struggle but one we cannot afford to ignore. We must remember that children are with us for only a short time but they have the rest of their lives ahead of them. We should do everything in our power to make their future lives as adults happy, positive and productive.
Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Whatever it Takes!” Just for the ASKing! March 2005. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2005 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.