Why “if you can reach just one” isn’t good enough

I’ve had some conversations over this break that have been  revealing about the way I think the public views students in poverty in the classroom. People ask my about my job and what I do in it, and I respond about the challenges as well as good things that happen. I try to make my job sound hopeful. And it is hopeful, most of the time. I don’t let my doubts of my effectiveness show through during these conversations.

And then I hear, “well, if you can reach just one, you’ve done your job.”

All of these statements are well-meaning, coming from the heart of a cliché we’ve all probably said or heard. The challenges and struggles of those in poverty seem insurmountable. It’s something I used to believe—even when I became a real teacher. I used to be ecstatic if I had fifty percent of students on-task, declaring it a victory because I couldn’t make them want to learn. It’s true that you can’t force learning, but you can surely innovate in ways to increase your engagement.  I was failing with this tenet of teaching. Fifty percent is failing. As I improved my skills and rapport with the students, this on-task engagement has risen dramatically. It’s not always 100 percent, but it’s up there. And I had to work at it (reading Teach Like a Pirate helped). The defeatist mentality isn’t helpful when you teach teenagers. They will eat you alive.

At some point what I had heard about “if they don’t care to learn, then you can’t teach them” instantly linked itself to “well, if you can reach just one…”

There are three million public school teachers in the US , and there are over nineteen million students total in the free-or-reduced lunch program (what qualifies schools for reimbursement, as well as acting as an indicator for high-need schools). If every public school teacher reached “just one” of these students who are statistically disadvantaged, as a nation we would only be reaching sixteen percent of the population in-need.

Is sixteen percent good enough? Would you be satisfied if your kid’s school thought that reaching sixteen percent of its population was good enough? (In whatever way “reach” is defined in that context. The needs of people vary; it’s not just economic). My answer to that question would be a resounding “No.” I could do better than sixteen percent for anyone’s kids. And especially the ones I teach, who sometimes require me to do metaphorical backflips to get them to understand a concept.

It makes me angry when people are fine with ‘just reaching one’ academically, socio-economically, and emotionally disadvantaged student. But I believe if you were to position their own children into the situation, these children not being included in that area of “reaching,” they would have a very different perspective. From my experience, even the parents who take days to get ahold of for whatever reason, want the best for their children.

I don’t have any answers to combat this mentality other than to challenge it when it comes up in conversation, and lead by example. To educate people who aren’t in the trenches every day about the capabilities of young people. To convince people who vote on levies that it is worth reaching not “just one,” but all.

-S

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