Sunday, December 20, 2015

Seek first to understand

A couple of years ago I was in a meeting and we were discussing how different students were doing with a reading program.  They were identifying who they saw as "emergency students."  These were students who were significantly behind where they should be with their reading level.

So, one of my English learner students gets identified as an emergency.  I gasped.  Aloud.  Loudly.  People looked at me.

"Well, the word I would use to describe her is not 'emergency'.  Rather the word for me that comes to mind is 'superstar'."

I went on to explain how this student had only been in the country for a short period of time and had zero English when she arrived. She had just been exited from the newcomer program a few months ago.   We also didn't know a lot about her previous schooling in her home country.

So, I went on to explain: according to what we know about research on how long it takes to acquire a second language, she is actually OVER-achieving.   I explained all of this and I think I succeeded in getting her off the "emergency" list- maybe not the data sheet, but at least in people's minds.

As educators and as a society, we are very used to identifying problems.  We judge quickly. We are bothered by the square peg that doesn't fit into the round hole.  And, sometimes this leads to children being incorrectly suspected of having learning disabilities, or low intelligence, being lazy and apathetic, or difficult and oppositional.

Sometimes these things might turn out to be true.  But, often, oh so often, we are missing the real story.  And, we need to slow down and Seek First to Understand.    Here are 4 ways to approach this issue.


1.  Get the back story. Be a top-notch investigator.

 You really have very little business citing problems until you know the whole story.

 I'm guilty of this too and there are many times when I've had to check my own assumptions and slow down.  Times when I've unearthed new information that drew me up short in how I was seeing a kid.

This takes time.  Build a relationship with the child.  Build trust.  Ask questions.  Build a relationship with the family.  Build trust with them.  Ask questions.  Ask how you can help.  To use an over-used and tired phrase, "Think outside the box."  Figure out what might help.

A lot of  things can look like a learning or behavior problem in the classroom, when it is really something else in disguise. Trauma.  Experiencing or witnessing violence.  Divorce or any kind of serious problem in a family system.  Learning a new language.  Learning a new culture. Poverty. Gaps in education because of being a refugee or having a chaotic life.

Any of these things can and should give you pause, lead you to offer other kinds of help, and work with the child in a new and more compassionate and intelligent way.

2.  Don't compare apples to oranges.

Sometimes when a student is struggling, all we can see is how Unlike the other students they are.  How behind. How different.  Well, you may be comparing apples to oranges.  And, it's not fair or helpful.

Here's a quick case study. Let's compare my own daughter with a student I'll call Isaac.  They are about the same age and grade.  Isaac was in our newcomer program last year and is now in a regular middle school, still receiving English Learner services, but taking many other mainstream classes.

We were recently contacted by the staff there who is concerned about his academic achievement and thinking he should be tested for special education services.  Here's the back story.

Daughter was born in the USA and English is her first language.
Isaac lived in several different countries before he came here 2 years ago.  He had at least 2 other languages as a child, but was not fully proficient and literate in either of them.  

Daughter attended pre-school from ages 3-5, the same elementary school for 6 years, and now the same middle school for the past 2 years.  She has had excellent and caring teachers the entire time.
Isaac had very little formal education before he arrived here. The one school he told me about had a teacher who beat them.  

Daughter has lived her entire life in an intact family with plenty of emotional and financial resources.  Not only from her immediate family but from her extended family and many friends of the family.
Isaac had the most chaotic childhood you can imagine- constantly moving, witnessing and experiencing violence, poverty, going hungry, homelessness.  He is in a much better situation now but the scars are there.  

My colleague and I shared all of this with the counselor and she listened intently and said that obviously he has a lot of issues and would need a different kind of support.  We recommended making sure the teacher in each of his classes was using a model of best practices for English learners.  We also said he would benefit from small group work whenever possible and extra help after school.  And, that in some form or manner, he needs emotional support- counseling or mentorship or something.  She agreed that they should try a lot of things before special education testing.

 3.  What are YOU doing wrong, Teacher?

This was the other working tittle for this blog post, but I decided it was too negative and confrontational.  But, I do think that as teachers we need to think about our practice and if we are truly doing everything we can to meet a child's needs.

I am not pointing fingers at other teachers.  I am asking myself this question and admitting that I have been guilty more times than I care to admit of prematurely judging a child's motivation, attitude, personality or intelligence.

What are we doing to make the situation better for the child?  I asked the counselor above what the teachers were already doing to try to help him.  I asked:

  • Are they using best practices for English learners in their instruction?  This would include building background on a topic and explicitly teaching vocabulary.  
  • Does he ever get individual or small group help?  Extra help after school?
  • Has anyone attempted to make a connection with him?  Build a relationship?  
This is tough stuff and sometimes as teachers we get defensive because our jobs are already SO hard and we have so many students and so little time.  But THIS is the job and these are lives we are dealing with.  So, this is our work.  

4.  Look for strengths and find ways to capitalize on them.

Lately, the numbers at our center have reduced to a healthy ratio and it is making such a difference in the work we are able to do with our students.  We are able to do better instruction, but we are also able to  do everything I am talking about in this blog post.  Most importantly, we have more time to connect with them, to know them, and to watch them closely and really SEE them. It is the greatest gift.

When we see problems, we also owe it to the student to identify their strengths. Let's return to Isaac for a moment.  I listed his hardships and the difficult circumstances of his life but here are the other facts about this child:

In spite of everything he has gone through, he has one of the best and most caring hearts you could imagine.   He would give the coat off his back to a friend.  He has a great sense of humor.  His oral English is really good and he made a ton of progress with us in reading and writing.  He is athletic and strong.  He's a natural singer and dancer.  He is resilient.  He is the very definition of resilience.

So, this is a lot of good raw material to work with, right?  There's a lot of amazingness in place with this kid.  Actually, given all that he's been through, isn't it kind of incredible that he is doing as well as he is?

What does Isaac really need?  A lot of things.  But more than anything, love, consistency, attention.

 Last year, his first teacher in our community sent him a letter of encouragement.  She told him all the great things about him in the letter and how much she had valued having him as a student.  She passed it on to him through me.  I helped him read it once.  Then he continued to read it and re-read it.  He was supposed to be doing math but I pretended I didn't notice what he was doing.  I saw him fold it up and put it in his pocket, then take it out and read it again.  His smile grew larger every time he read it.  It was as if he could not believe that someone actually believed these things about him.  It was so moving to witness.

Find the strengths. Find the strengths.  Find the strengths.
Name them.  Grow them.  Help the child push off from there.  The strengths and the beauty is there to be found and it is our responsibility to discover it and nurture it.


I know I will read this blog post again when I am frustrated with a child.  I hope it will remind me to slow down and make the connections that are necessary.  You teach what you need to learn and I am still working on each and every one of my own recommendations.  Sometimes I do really well and sometimes, to be honest, I fail miserably.  But, I keep at it.  And, you should too.  

As humans, we all want to be seen.  We all long to be understood.  We all crave connection.   Our students feel the same way.  

So, there is no greater privilege than being able to see, to understand, and to connect with our students.

It will make all the difference.  

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