I remember a few years ago, I started the school year frustrated. You see, the year before, I had really struggled to keep some of my students from failing. Admittedly, a lot of it was their fault – they weren’t doing their homework, they barely studied for tests, they didn’t turn in major papers. Some seemed not to care at all.
But, I had to take some of the blame too. I was busy juggling 3 preps, so I didn’t keep as close an eye on students as I could have. As a result, some were failing long before I noticed. And, if I was really being honest, there were a couple of students who weren’t doing anything in class and my attitude was, “Hey, if they aren’t trying, why should I kill myself to help them?”
While on some level I felt justified in feeling this way, it still didn’t feel good. I felt a little guilty, like maybe I had given up on those kids too soon. I couldn’t help but think that there was something more I could have done to keep my students motivated.
The problem was, I had worked pretty hard the year before. In fact, every single day, I gave up my lunch period to work one-on-one with students who came in for extra help. But the students who needed my help the most almost never came in.
I tried just about everything…
- I offered retakes but he students who needed them the most never came in to take them.
- I gave extensions on assignments. No work came in.
- I called home and spoke with their parents. The parents shared my frustration but couldn’t seem to get through to their child either.
- I sent out progress reports every other week. The students seemed unmoved.
- I created individual learning contracts for each student. The students immediately broke them despite the consequences.
- I even gave them incompletes instead of failing them outright in one last ditch effort to give them a chance to turn in missing work and at least earn a “D” for the marking period. They still didn’t turn in their work.
It was almost like they didn’t care. In fact, I felt like I cared about their grades WAY more than they did. What else could I do?
I was really frustrated. I had become a teacher because I wanted to help every child learn, and yet it felt that I was failing big time.
Something had to give…
That summer, I went to a PD training to earn a few credits for recertification. I didn’t have high hopes for training frankly, but I figured I could sit in the back and read if it was too boring.
Well the speaker for the training was a guy named Max Thompson, and what he said that day changed everything for me.
He started out by arguing that remediation is actually the LEAST effective way to support struggling learners.
Well that got my attention.
He explained that the way that remediation typically works, students struggle during a unit, fail the test and then get remediation. Meanwhile, we move on to the next unit. So basically, students have to relearn concepts from the previous unit while at the same time they are also being asked to learn new concepts.
He went on to say that the reason remediation doesn’t work is because by focusing on remediation alone, students are constantly facing backwards rather than forwards. And, the more that they are backwards focused, trying to catch up and keep up at the same time, the more frustrated students become and the more hopeless they feel.
It made a lot of sense to me. If you’re running a race, and you are losing, your coach doesn’t pull you to the side and review the fundamentals of running with you does he?
So why do we take kids who are already behind and pull them aside and review the work they missed instead of helping them catch up quickly and keep up?
Suddenly, I understood why I was so frustrated and why my students were too.
You see, I was always taught that when students failed, I should respond right away. So I created all these elaborate remediation plans to apply the moment a student failed.
But what I didn’t realize was that if I waited for students to fail before I acted, I was already too late. By the time students fail, they are frustrated, their motivation is sapped, and the pathway to success looks almost insurmountable. Once students meet with failure, it’s very hard for them to recover.
I realized that the reason I was so frustrated was because I was responding to failure instead of preventing failure in the first place.
All that effort I was putting into remediating students once they had failed was doomed from the start.
My time and energy would be better spent preventing failure to begin with.
That one insight changed everything for me.
All this time, I was blaming myself thinking that I needed to work harder, that I just needed to find the right remediation program and I could help my failing students recover.
Now I knew that I was spending my time and energy on the wrong thing. I didn’t need a better remediation plan -- What I needed was a prevention plan.
Here I was feeling guilty for not reaching all of my students. Now I understood that remediation alone was the problem. With the right process, I could reach every single student in my classroom and help each one succeed.
All that time, I was killing myself spending lunches, time before and after school working with students, and giving up countless weekends creating remediation resources for my students. I thought it was the only way to help my struggling learners succeed.
Now, I knew that I was wasting my time. There was a better way.
It’s not your fault
Maybe you’re like me and you’ve spent years trying and failing to help your struggling students succeed. Maybe you too have given up your lunchtime to work with students individually or sacrificed your nights and weekends creating remediation plans to no avail.
Maybe you too have secretly blamed your students because even after all your efforts, they still don’t show up for extra help, still don’t turn in their missing assignments, and still don’t come in for that retake.
Well, it’s not your fault.
You’ve been working on remediation, when remediation is one of the least effective ways of helping students who are behind.
I’ll tell you what WILL work next time.
In the meantime, I want to hear from you. What’s your biggest frustration or challenge when it comes to working with struggling learners? Let me know in the comments below.