Saturday, October 15, 2016

There Are More Important Things

This is Homecoming week at my high school; Thursday parade, Friday game, and tonight, the Big Dance. It's a big deal. I've been the Student Council adviser in charge of all this stuff for years and years now, and I never cease to be amazed at how worked up some students get about it. After all, it is the first Big Dance of the year, and for our freshpersons, the first Big dance of their entire high school career. Feelings run high. It's not really the Homecoming dance until some freshperson is crying in the lobby.

But watching the teenaged angst in bloom, it occurs to me once again that one of our more treasured debates in education is a little overwrought and misplaced itself.

Teenaged angst is so fraught because students are still trying to work out the sense of perspective. Did my friend's unkind comment to me just now really signal the End of the World, or does it just feel like it, or is there even any difference between the two things? When that other person just touched my hand, did that mean a little? A lot? Everything? Is anybody else's heart beating as hard as mine right this second? This will all be better in five or ten years? I'll look back on this fondly in five or ten years!? Are you freaking kidding me, Old Person?? Five or ten years is practically forever!

The scale of personal stakes gets even tougher for students who are dealing with more adult-style issues-- family troubles, children of their own, scraping enough money together for things like food and heat. Abuse. Neglect. Abuse and neglect that do not jump out like an obvious after-school special, so it's hard for anyone to know, to judge.

In the education debates, we love to debate the importance of poverty. Reformsters like to accuse folks of using poverty as an excuse for poor student achievement. They accuse pro-public-edsters of claiming that poor kids can't achieve anything. Meanwhile, reformsters make the argument that if we just boost student achievement, those students will lift right up out of poverty. We can't fail to push students to achieve just because they're poor, say the reformsters. We can't pretend that poverty doesn't have a profound effect on how students learn, say the rest of us.

But I watch all the sturm and drang of this week and wonder once again if we're not just overthinking this.

When you're young, and especially when you're young and poor, there are just more important things.

When you are worried if you will be safe at home tonight, if you will be screamed at or hit for reasons you can't even predict, unlocking the secrets of participial phrases just doesn't seem like the most important thing in your life.

When you are tired because there was no heat in your home last night, and tense because you know there won't be any heat again tonight, gaining a deeper understanding of quadratic equations is just not the most important thing in your life.

When you know your single parents is hurting and struggling to provide enough for you, and you're hungry because there isn't much food in the house and there still won't be tonight, coming up with the right answer for the Big Standardized Test is not the most important thing in your life.

And if you are a young person with a child of your own, worrying about how to provide for that child and care for that child, making sure that you use the right formula for constructing open response answers on yor BS Test is just not remotely the most important thing in your life.

The ongoing debate about the roll of poverty in student achievement often assumes a framework not in evidence-- that poverty is some sort of obstacle standing between students and their academic achievement on a Big Standardized Test. We spend a lot of time arguing about what kind of obstacle poverty constitutes, and not nearly enough time examining our assumption that pumping out those student achievement numbers is any sort of priority or important factor in the lives of the students.

We spend a lot of time agreeing and asserting that school is a super-important factor that will Make All the Difference and therefor is of Utmost Importance, and if we're not careful, we kind of forget to check with students to see if they got the memo. It would be easy to see why they might not have-- there's plenty of evidence that their future trajectory has more to do with their family's class and not educational achievement, and that translates into their vision of the future being defined by what they see around them. Plus, there's that whole future thing ("This education biz will pay off maybe in ten years or so? Are you freaking kidding me, old person?")

But mostly they are kids, with lives. We have this weird tendency to forget that children still have lives of their own, even if they are children. Occasionally we take a super-toxic approach to the issue (What is the no excuses approach except a demand that students suppress, ignore and otherwise drop all concern in their own actual lives).

They are small people with lives, concerns, priorities, fears, issues, struggles and questions about how to sort it all out. These are all important to the students in our classrooms. One of the worst things I can do in my classroom is demand that in order to be heard, seen, or cared about, students must drop their own list of life concerns and substitute the list that I thrust in their faces. But some of us (even the best of us on bad days) get really pissy about this business. The child is lazy. The child is obstinate. The child is oppositional defiant. The child is an ass.


There are just more important things.

Almost every teacher has a story, though we don't like to tell them and when we do, they are tinged with regret. My very first year in a classroom, I had a student who would put his head down every other day, sometimes full on asleep. How disrespectful! What a jerk! I kept him after class, prepared to read him the riot act, to mount a towering explanation of how missing even a period of my scintilating instruction was a loss to him, to his future. And then he explained (and someone else later confirmed for me) that he was working two jobs so that he could afford a lawyer so that he could fight his ex to retain partial custody of their child and it was killing him but (and this where his eyes welled up) that child was so very important to him and he wanted to be sure that he was in a position to help her have a good life. But he promised the next day he would try to pay better attention while I was explaining a five-paragraph essay. Yeah, at that point somebody was feeling like a jerk, all right.

There are more important things.

Look, I love my job, and I do my job as well as I can because I believe it's hugely important. But sometimes, there are more important things. One of the privileges of wealth is that most of those things are well taken care of by other folks. One of the problems of poverty is that issues other folks don't even think about (It's cold out. Do I have a coat today?) can swallow up a whole day's worth of worry. And our time spent trying to sort out pedagogy and policy and instruction and curriculum and standards is all well-spent. But I have to think that some days, it all boils down to the simple fact that students are human beings who have more important things to worry about than what answer to click on in a Big Standardized Test that won't solve a single problem in their lives.


  1. Beautifully written; tears to my eyes. Curse you but thank you. My deepest descent into such jerkdom was when a young woman came late to my class and fell asleep on her folded arms about 5 minutes after she arrived. My internal monologue was similar to yours. My pompous lecture to her after class was instantly put on pause as she explained the reason for the lateness and her sleeping. She had been awake all night at Mass General Hospital trying to console and comfort her dying mother, and, when relieved by her dad, ran the half mile to my classroom, arriving at least 5 minutes late because what we were doing was “really important” to her. There were others, but that was the worst, and still hurts the most, twenty years later.

  2. The best Sunday morning sermon I've heard in a very long time. Preach it, Brother Peter!

  3. So true and so sad - there are so many stories that still bring tears to my eyes and and an ache to my heart years later. I taught and was admin for 41 years, and there are stories I will never forget. I still wonder how some of my students survived their daily lives and how they are doing now. This is something that educrats who have never stepped foot in a classroom will never understand.