Teacher Challenge: “I am not helping my students as much as they need”

Summer is great time to rest, relax, unwind, travel, spend time with family, get a part-time job, re-certify, tweak your resume, attend professional development, interview potential teaching candidates, figure out what was done right and wrong last year, change the master schedule, set up boot camps for new students in fifth and ninth grade, change rooms and prepare your mind and body for the coming school year (which always comes too soon). An educator’s job is never done.

This brings me to challenges in the coming year. We will have them, that’s inevitable. A reader and middle school educator responded to my survey questions with the response that is often on our minds. The question was, “What is your #1 single biggest challenge in education right now?” Her response is below:

“My biggest challenge is that I am working with a group of students that have so many issues that I am not equipped to deal with. My students this year have a variety of learning, behavior, mental health and social issues. Some days we barely get to the academic content because of everything else we have to deal with. I frequently feel discouraged and inadequate and I worry that I am not helping my students as much as they need.”

That is not an easy dilemma to address. But it is a challenge faced by many educators every day.

First, realize that you are not alone. We all feel inadequate at times. In my first year of teaching, I was very tempted to hang up my dry erase markers a few times and call it quits. Thankfully, we had a very supportive staff and the children kept calling me back (see “On the Day You Feel Like Quitting as a Teacher, Remember This“).

As educators we are our own biggest critics. We want to save the world, see the lightbulb turn on, but sometimes feel like we can’t even find the light switch. The guilt associated with feeling like you are not giving your students what they need can keep you up at night, but there is hope.

If you feel like you are not equipped to deal with the student needs, reach out for help. There are people in your building, other schools and the central office who may have more experience handling students with the same challenges yours are facing.

Tap into the special education teachers and guidance counselor to get a handle on strategies to engage those students who have special education needs. Review their individual education plans (IEPs), call on their former teachers and start a dialogue with their parents. They may need a different form of accountability than you are used to dealing with.

I know some students whose teachers employ weekly accountability checklists with rewards (computer time, basketball time) for good behavior or academic progress when they earn the points. Some students use a signal to the teacher when they need a time out in a buddy room when they begin to feel anxious.

Request a parent-teacher conference and invite the school psychologist, behavior specialist, social workers, your team members and anyone else you feel can bring assistance to the child. These accountability measures, plans and meetings are only worthwhile when they are child-centered and done consistently.

The first few days of school are vital when it comes to setting the pace for the rest of the year. In these first few days you need to set high academic and behavioral expectations, tight boundaries and professional tone. Just like you, no child wants to come to school to fail. They want to be successful just like you do. Let them know they can be successful and give them the road map to get there.

Establishing daily procedures are equally as important. As a leader, your people need to know what you expect from them daily. The same goes for your students. A daily routine as opposed to changing things up all of the time provides structure and stability to their day (for many, it may be the only structure they have in their day). You can, occasionally, throw in a curveball, game or special activity, but structure and solid teaching practices are the key to success.

I recommend a book called The First Days of School by Harry Wong to all teachers no matter their experience level. It provides sound guidance and strategies to start the school year properly and to maintain successful strategies throughout the year.

When you have a classroom full of students with varying levels of ability, differentiating the classwork, homework and exams are the key to success (and success breeds success). I recently witnessed a teacher, following the bell work, social and emotional learning (SEL) activity and a quick lesson, pass out an assignment and break students into ability groups so seamlessly, they didn’t even realize what happened.

While the students were working, she circulated and (knowing her students very well) whispered to each student to relocate in a numbered place in the hallway or room with other students of like abilities. This grouping was also done based on their current understanding of the assignment. She quietly handed out extension work to the higher performers, told some of the lower performers to only do certain problems with special challenge problems when they finished their differentiated assignment. By the time she was done, there were about five students remaining. She pulled them to a table for a teacher lead group. It was a thing of beauty and all of the students complied (and this was not an easy group of fifth graders).

Social issues are also a big challenge, but this is middle school, they ALL have social issues! I’m joking, somewhat. It is our job to assist in lighting the way for them from a social and emotional standpoint as well. I would recommend you study up on SEL which was mentioned above. I spent some time at the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in Chicago. If you visit their Website, casel.org, there are a variety of articles, blogs and resources which can aid you in actively approaching some of the social and emotional issues which will arise in your classroom.

Lastly, nothing is going to beat great teaching. Make sure your lessons engage the students with current issues, bring in cultural heritage and strategies and activities that make your students want to be heard and participate. AVID (avid.org) is a great program for all students, but primarily focuses on students who will hopefully be first generation college students. I have seen these highly trained teachers transform groups of students and generate hope and promise from a formerly rag tag bunch of dissimilar young people.

I hope I gave you some direction. There is a lot of assistance out there, you just have to know where to look and how to implement it to your own situation. Train and implement, train and implement. Don’t forget, this is not a film script. It’s not all going to tie together in a beautiful little bow in 90 minutes. This may take a few months or even years to accomplish. You may fall but get back up. The children are worth it.

Photo Credit: theunquietlibrarian via Compfight cc