Speaking Up For The Neglected Majority of Students
“No Child Forced To Wait” should replace “No Child Left Behind.”
An Open Letter To My Students
One of my first posts on Quora to reach over 5,000 “upvotes” from readers was an open letter of apology from me, a teacher, to my well-behaved and motivated students. I logged on to Quora to decompress a little after school, after a particularly challenging day thanks to the usual handful of out-of-control students who could not behave themselves, and who simply did not care that they were disturbing the entire class most of the day. A Quora question about “what teachers would say if they could tell the truth to students” appeared on my feed, and I thought venting a little online would ease my stress. I was in a bad mood, the planets were in alignment, and the words just flowed out of me. Words like:
“I’m sorry that I had to spend the first half of class just trying to get Timmy to stop talking, so I could teach the rest of you.” (Timmy is the generic name I always use for out-of-control students.)
“I see how bored you are… you non-Timmys in the class. I wish I could challenge you more. I wish I had the time to focus on you, and not Timmy and his complete lack of impulse control.”
“I’m sorry that every single class with Timmy in it is behind schedule, and every single one of his teachers have had to lower their expectations for the year, all because of him.”
“I see the love of learning in your eyes get a little dimmer each time I have to stop everything for ten minutes to get Timmy under control. I am sorry.”
“I am sorry that we can’t do much group work or go on field trips or do anything that would give Timmy any bit of freedom, because I know, from experience, that he will ruin it for everyone.”
“I’m sorry that the administration is too afraid of being sued by the parents of students like Timmy to do what really needs to be done: put all of the Timmy’s in a single classroom, where their learning styles can be met one way, while the rest of the students can learn in peace.”
“I’m sorry that half of the planning time I get for your class is usually spent just documenting the things that Timmy did in class… documentation that I have to do, but will not lead to any changes.”
“I’m sorry that you never got to be taught by Mrs. Smith, or Mrs. Jones, or any of the other teachers I’ve known over the years who switched professions or retired early because of the handfuls of Timmys they had to deal with every year.”
I put all of my feelings after a difficult day at work out there for all to see. I posted that in the evening, feeling better for writing it, but not expecting much from it. It was more of a catharsis for me than anything else.
When I woke up the next day, it’d gone viral. Besides the “upvotes,” I also had about 400 comments, mostly from students from all over the country, mostly praising me for finally saying what they’d been thinking: the classroom Timmys set the pace for everyone else’s educations, and they were sick of it.
Ultimately, I deleted that post. I felt like I was being too negative… That I should focus more on the positives of teaching… That I shouldn’t let venting after a bad day at work be the defining thing I wrote about teaching online.
That was four years ago. I’ve since written similar, but more tactful, posts about basically the same thing: One of the main reasons for all of the problems in education in America that no one likes to talk about, like lowering standards, high teacher turnover, etc… is all of the classroom Timmys that school administrators are far too hesitant to remove from regular classrooms.
No Child Left Behind vs. No Child Forced To Wait
A lot of you reading this are yourself, a product of the American public school system. Think back to your K-8 years. Do you remember people whose only job was to deal with the students with behavior problems? Were there “special education” teachers who had special classrooms with aides and all kinds of equipment for just a handful of students? Do you remember being bored a lot in school, because your teacher didn’t have the time to challenge you because they were so busy re-teaching things to the students who didn’t get it the first time? Do you remember a handful of students who seemed to set the pace for the whole class, and that pace was much, much too slow for you? Do you remember a handful of students whose attitudes and behavior set the tone for the whole class? And was that a negative tone that left your teacher spending most of their time dealing with that small handful of students?
That was my experience, at least. In grades 4–8, I was one of about 20 students in a special gifted program in my school. But that gifted “program” was just two teachers who were given a spare classroom in five schools in the district, and they went to a different school every day of the week, and pulled out the gifted students from their classes for an hour, to play logic games with them.
One hour per week. That’s what we got.
Meanwhile, the students on the other end of the spectrum had resources thrown at them, including permanent classrooms with full-time teachers for students whose only “special need” was that they didn’t give a damn about learning.
It Only Took One Student To Ruin It
I remember one incident in particular when I realized just how much time my teachers wasted trying to get one particular student under control. His name was Anthony. One day, in seventh grade, we were learning about feudal Japan by playing a game where we were all on teams, given items to trade, and could use money we made to hire soldiers, and then there was a huge map of Japan on the wall, separated into regions, with the number of regions under each team’s control represented by different colored push pins.
My team started in Osaka. To this day, I know exactly where Osaka is because of this game back in 1992. I remember that we were the blue team, our main thing to trade was fish, and we began with five pushpin armies.
Also, Judith was in my group, which made it even that much more enjoyable for me. She was forced to interact with me for a few minutes each day because of this.
It was a computer-less strategy game. I loved it. The game was supposed to last for a few weeks.
It lasted two days. On the third day, Anthony vandalized the giant game board, and some of his friends laughed. And that was it. The teacher was tired of putting in so much effort for something that students like Anthony just kept ruining. We did the rest of the unit, and every unit afterward for the rest of the year, through textbook reading and worksheets.
But, as I thought about it, I realized that Anthony had been that way since he was first in my class in second grade. He was always out of control. He always set the pace and the tone for the class. In middle school, he got kicked out of class a lot, which just wasted a lot of time because he rarely went willingly and they had to call and wait for security. But he was always back in the class the next day. He just needed to “chill out.”
That was actually the name of the kick-out room for students like him: the “chill-out room.” Kicking students out of class is discouraged these days. It requires a lot of documentation and won’t usually result in any action. Things will be the same the next day.
I just Googled Anthony and found a story that he was sentenced to six years in prison in 2004 for “domestic battery, drug possession, and forgery.”
Yep. All of that extra time, effort, and money the public school spent on him… how’d that work out?
The Other Kind Of Balanced Budget
That wouldn’t be such a problem if the public schools spent the same amount of time, effort, and money on the upper end of the spectrum.
My point is this: One of the biggest problems in contemporary education in America, which no one likes to talk about, is the completely lopsided amount of attention and resources spent on students at the bottom end of the academic and behavioral spectrums. Public schools just aren’t equipped to deal with the needs of students on the higher end of the academic and behavioral spectrums, because they’re too busy dealing with the special needs of students on the other end.
The very people who have the most potential to give the most back to society are the same ones who school prioritizes the least.
Imagine a school system where every dollar spent on students on the lower end of the special needs spectrum had to be matched by a dollar for students on the higher end of the spectrum.
Imagine if, just like schools have resources in place for when the teachers need to kick out the Anthonys of the world, those same schools had resources for teachers to send out the students who were too smart for that day’s lesson.
“Timmy, you can read this and learn it on your own in five minutes, but I’m going to be teaching it to the rest of the class for the next hour. You can go to the gifted resource room and work with the teacher there on more advanced stuff.”
Imagine if, just as schools pay extra attention to students with special needs due to federal laws and fears of getting sued, schools did the same for students on the high end of the spectrum. Imagine if parents could threaten a lawsuit because the school wasn’t meeting the needs of their child… the legally-mandated requirement that the school challenge them on their academic level and not let their classmates hold them back.
Imagine how high your hot air balloon could be now, if not for the classroom sandbags that weighed you down when you were in school.
Instead of “No Child Left Behind,” it should be “No Child Forced To Wait.”