The Students Who Need Us Most

The students who need us most need us to be advocates for the profession.

The students who need us most need us to be advocates for the profession.

I walk through schools every week. How else can I support and assist teachers and principals in their work unless I really understand what the work is? I recently walked through a school and had an experience that after 30 years in this field, and seeing students face all kinds of hardships, still managed to bring tears to my eyes. In relaying this experience I have used fictitious names. This is a story that I need to write down and revisit from time to time. It is a testament to the powerful work that educators do. It is a reminder of the impact we can have on the students who need us most.

I first heard the phrase students who need us the most in a MASTER TEACHER publication almost 30 years ago. While I have probably lost the original context and perhaps the original meaning, the phrase has stuck with me, and to me it is the catchall phrase that describes students facing tremendous hardships and students that are difficult to teach for a variety of reasons. In my personal context I use it to mean all students with the exception of those who walk in the door primed and ready to learn and who would learn regardless of the teachers’ actions. Yes, in my opinion, there are a few of those students in our classes.

My colleagues and I were recently visiting a high school. We visited classrooms and chatted with teachers and the administrative team on how the blended learning initiative is going. In one of the classrooms a young man who was a ninth grader was sitting in a group working on a collaborative project and saw our identification badges and asked, “ Do you work at the District Office?”

“Yes, we do.” we replied.

“Do you know Ms. Claire Johnson?”

“Yes, we do.  We know her well. Are you related to Ms. Johnson?”

“No. Ms. Johnson helped me a lot when I was in the DSS custody (Department of Social Services). Will you tell her I said hello? My name is Doug Anders, and I appreciate what she did for me.”

Now I work in a system that encompasses a geographic area roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island and is home to more than 289,000 residents at the last official count.  Yet, even with that large geographic size, and the likely possibility we may not know Ms. Claire Johnson, I saw hope in that young man’s eyes that we would know this person and could tell her he said hello and appreciated her.

It doesn’t take a college degree in human growth or development or adolescent psychology to know that for a 15-year-old male to make a statement like that while sitting with a group of his peers that Ms. Johnson had a profound impact on him.

I often question whether individuals who make quick judgments about public educators and public schools, or individuals who help write legislation that impact the nation’s schools, really understand what it is like to walk the halls of these institutions every day.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not pointing a finger at our leaders if they don’t have a realistic picture. I respect, admire, and appreciate most of our elected officials and the work that they do. I count some of them as acquaintances and close friends. I do, however, wonder whether we as educators do our part to help elected officials understand that our schools are a reflection of society, and the problems in society of course show up in our classrooms and schools.

Some points for consideration:

  • Do we, as educational professionals, help elected officials understand that there is so much more to teaching students than academic test scores on the end-of-the year assessments?
  • Do we as educators act as strong advocates of the profession?
  • Do we take time to become knowledgeable regarding the issues impacting our profession?
  • Do we take time to become knowledgeable about the education platform of the candidates running for office?
  • Do we use our voices and our votes to send powerful messages about our current reality and the challenges facing the nation’s schools?

I currently have a tendency to think not – at least not in the region of the country in which I live. If we did, in South Carolina at least, we would have better voting turnout during elections and take on a stronger advocacy role for the profession.

A lot of responsibility rests on the shoulders of our elected officials, and as public educators it our moral obligation be knowledgeable about the issues and vote – after all, our schools are full of the students who need us the most, and they need us to be advocates for public education.

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