Every teacher has them--troublemakers who can’t, don’t, or won’t learn or even try to cooperate, follow procedures, or behave. In our own education, we have all attended school with these kids and remember them for their attitude, apathy, defiance, truancy, misbehavior and for their clowning, flunking, repeating grades, and getting kicked out of classes before finally dropping out. Labeled “at-risk” as the most recent catch-all term for deprived, learning disabled, disadvantaged, or underachievers, at-risk kids have become “Our Nation’s #1 Education Problem.”
Through five decades as a classroom teacher, I have seen the problem of disrespectful, uncooperative kids grow steadily worse, the number of such undisciplined and “impossible” kids increases, and the school’s ability to cope with them declines, while dropout rates, disciplinary problems, truancy, and violence increase. As a teacher (I never aspired to anything else), I hassled with the recalcitrant kids and sympathized with my beleaguered colleagues. I saw and felt their frustration, discouragement, and anger. Then, as I began to work with groups of the troubled and troublesome kids, I became aware of the other side of the at-risk issue—the kids’ side. I came to see even greater frustration, helplessness, and hostility in the students than I had seen in teachers.
I became aware of the other side of the at-risk issue—the kids’ side. I came to see even greater frustration, helplessness, and hostility in the students than I had seen in teachers.
At-Risk: Six Definitions
The category of “At-Risk” is so all-encompassing that understanding it requires many definitions from the simplest, “Kids at-risk of failure” to the more honest, “Kids at-risk of not being taught.” I, personally, have progressed from the first definition I used, “Students teachers cannot teach, control, motivate, or interest using traditional techniques, prescribed curriculum, predetermined schedule, and preplanned level of group instruction,” to one that fit the majority of kids I was teaching at the time, ”Students whose parents are too immature themselves to guide wisely; too diminished by poverty to nurture; too far from opportunity to offer hope, and too overwhelmed to acknowledge additional problems.”
As I really began to feel the kids’ agonizing pain, I defined at-risk as, “Students whose failure, embarrassment, and wounded ego, cause desperate, self-destructive, defensive behavior instead of attempts to learn. Their misbehavior didn’t cause failure; failure caused their misbehavior.” Then as I focused more on the underlying causes of their failure, I came to understand that at-risk means, “Students placed in a position to fail by a significant mismatch between their existing knowledge and the age-grouped, lock-stepped curriculum. Fitting the kids to the curriculum instead of fitting the curriculum to the kids has never worked. The mismatch fails students for simply being who they are.”
Teachers and students are victims of bureaucratic policies that increase the at-risk problems. But, the kids bear the brunt of the disaster. The deleterious results of school failure and retention imperil the daily lives of 14 million struggling, failing school kids and diminish their future beyond hope. Dr. Martin Habermann likened school failure to “A death sentence lived one day at a time.” Students are living the only lives they know or will ever have. They don’t want to be at risk of failure. They just come to school and things over which they have no control, happen. What kid would ever deliberately choose to fail, to be scorned, to be fearful, hurt, and embarrassed? If they do choose the misery of failure, it could be only to avoid something far worse—disclosure of their inability to conform.
Dr. Martin Habermann likened school failure to “A death sentence lived one day at a time.”
When One Kid Flunks, It’s a Personal and Family Tragedy.
When 15 million kids Flunk, It’s Just School Policy
For at least a century, school policy makers have permitted and even condoned students’ flunking—as though any student would actually choose flunking over successful learning and being one of the in-group. Of all our school difficulties, failure policies are the most pervasive, persistent, and pressing educational problems we face. After many decades of trying, I am forced to admit defeat in changing the unconscionable failure policies. The “powers-that-be” have proved president Woodrow Wilson’s statement, “It is as difficult to change school policy as it is to change the location of a cemetery.” However, at long last, I am now optimistic about having an impact on the at-risk problem. I have discovered an effective way to help whole school faculties and individual teachers begin changing the daily struggle for the defiant kids who never “Have a good day.”
Having been successful in their own schooling, teachers usually lack personal experiences to fully understand the pain, embarrassment, and defensive psyche wrought by school failure. Teachers tend to teach as they themselves were taught. But, the teaching methods that worked on them and other successful students do not work on at-risk kids. Continuing use of educational methods that don’t work for at-risk students is not just mis-education, it constitutes malpractice. Many teachers use punishment, embarrassment, failure, sarcasm, retention, bad grades, suspension, and negative reaction to get kids to change their behavior. Like the kids, well-meaning teachers are just doing what they know to do, what has been done all their lives.
Teachers and Kids Are Victims of Policy
Teachers are not to blame. They have seen these troublemakers marginalized, punished, tracked, and flunked as the only strategies school use to deal with them. Teachers, understandably, accept the procedures they have personally experienced and that “everyone” uses. A student who is deprived, neglected, abused, and rejected at home should not be deprived, neglected, abused, and rejected at school. Yet failure and retention ensure that those most unloved and unlovable kids get the least acceptance from anyone in school from the classified staffs, professionals and students. Until teachers have a meaningful opportunity to reflect on how school policies ensure that kids most unloved and unlovable get the least acceptance, they will continue to contribute to the intractable problem.
Behavior is always purposeful to the behaver; teachers need to learn to deal with the purpose or causes, not the behavior.
Teacher Study Groups have emerged as effective procedures for helping teachers change their attitude, understanding, and treatment of problem learners. Teachers cannot improve or change their teaching of at-risk kids without first improving and changing the beliefs on which their teaching of failing students is based. Teams of teachers in schools focus on their beliefs and assumptions as the causes of behavior, rather than on behaviors, which are symptoms of those beliefs. Changing beliefs requires teachers to reflect on their beliefs as a means of changing their behavior. Behavior is always purposeful to the behaver; teachers need to learn to deal with the purpose or causes, not the behavior.
Bill Page, a farm boy, graduated from a one-room school. He forged a career in the classroom teaching middle school “troublemakers.” For the past 26 years, in addition to his classroom duties, he has taught teachers across the nation to teach the lowest achieving students successfully with his proven premise, “Failure is the choice and fault of schools, not the students.”
Bill Page is a classroom teacher. For 46 years, he has patrolled the halls, responded to the bells, and struggled with innovations. He has had his share of lunchroom duty, bus duty, and playground duty. For the past four years, Bill, who is now in his 50th year as a teacher, is also a full time writer. His book, At-Risk Students is available on Abebooks, Amazon, R.D. Dunn Publishing, and on Bill’s web site: http://www.teacherteacher.com/
In At-Risk Students, Page discusses problems facing failing students, “who can’t, don’t and won’t learn or cooperate.” “The solution,” he states, “is for teachers to recognize and accept student misbehavior as defense mechanisms used to hide embarrassment and incompetence, and to deal with causes rather than symptoms. By entering into a democratic, participatory relationship, where students assume responsibility for their own learning.” Through 30 vignettes, the book helps teachers see failing students through his eyes as a fellow teacher, whose classroom success with at-risk students made him a premier teacher-speaker in school districts across America.