lately, some of the adages I’ve heard since I was very young are really starting to resonate with me — I’m really starting to get them, and it’s most frequently been in the context of the classroom.
You’re Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link
this one used to annoy me a lot as a kid, in pretty much any group situation. in the settings where I was a stronger link, most often at school, I was easily impatient with and frustrated by “weaker links,” kids who didn’t get things as quickly as I did or who didn’t do their homework or try as hard, or whatever it was that in my child brain didn’t measure up.
as an adult, and especially as a teacher, I see now how each kid coming to school may be pushing as hard as they can, but the homes they’re coming from may either create obstacles or lay fertile ground for their school success. and that home life variable can be anything from poverty, not speaking English at home, having only one parent, having parents who are splitting up or who argue and fight often, to parents who are college graduates and earn high incomes and take their children on enriching vacations and hire tutors and nannies and send them to club sports and private lessons. it’s easy to grow when you’re a kid from an optimal home — or on the optimal side — versus kids who live in obstacle-filled homes.
I can see that now, and I can see it better, and I understand why I was impatient as a kid. and I know that I was guilty of thinking that I was smarter than other kids in my room. however, no adult — no teacher or parent or family member — ever broke it down for me, explaining that not every kid has the same home life. not every kid gets their own, quiet room to sleep in at night. not every kid gets a home-cooked meal and a place and time to do their homework. not every kid gets vacations to destinations around the country and around the world. and not every kid has parents who are genuinely interested in their success. so what can I do, now that I’m in a position to be that adult who can break it down for different groups of kids? — but not do it in a way that says, “Hey, you’ve got nothing, you’re our weakest link,” or “Hey, you’re so lucky, congratulations, you’re our strongest link?”
my best attempts have been trying to show it through biography and stories — to discuss how real kids from history, like Louis Braille and Helen Keller, had different childhoods, but through their circumstances were able to achieve a lot. I felt a little weird explaining it to my students at the time, but it was true and I think I had to say it. I said, “you know, if Helen Keller’s family wasn’t a wealthy, landowning family, we would probably have never known who she was. her family wouldn’t have been able to pay for a teacher to come and live with her, to give up her entire life to teacher Helen, and only Helen, for her entire life. it makes a big difference if you’re rich, and Helen was lucky.” I paused and thought, then went on. “and Louis Braille didn’t come from a wealthy family at all, so they had to be strict with him and give him chores and not help him too much even when he made mistakes. they had to see him fall, and then tell him not give up, or let him become spoiled or hopeless. they had to push him hard and he had to push himself hard, too. thankfully he never gave up, and we have braille today, and we have him to thank — and Helen Keller has him to thank, too. so we have to remember that our families help to push us hard and even our teachers are here to push us hard, too.”
So my role as teacher, and as adult in the world I guess, is to notice those people around me who are dealing with obstacles and setbacks, to acknowledge that and not to see them through a lens of strength or weakness, but through the lens of needing my understanding, encouragement, and support.
Run Your Own Race
my internal struggle then comes from the balance I try to find between caring for my students who need the understanding, encouragement, and support and also caring for my students who are already fortunate enough to come to school with a lot of the “optimal home life” boxes checked. between these two groups, what’s fair?
honestly, I don’t know. this is a struggle I’ve had for years. I have only so much time, so many resources, and so much energy, and I have to work with what I’ve got, sometimes moment to moment, and with a lot of variables at play each day. and for me it goes down all the way to the question of what a free and appropriate education is — what that truly means. does that mean that each child is challenged and engaged at their individual level for as much of the day as possible? does that mean that children are asked to learn the content of their grade level (first grade, second grade, third grade, etc.) and anything beyond that is extra? does it mean that kids need to be divided or tracked, so kids with more similar needs can be together? does it mean that kids cycle through different teachers throughout the day, so they can see specialists for each content area?
I know what’s plausible for me as a teacher, and I’ve heard what’s fashionable and preferred by parents, which — spoiler alert — are incompatible. so what do we do? most importantly, I think parents need to adjust their expectations, and think back to when they were kids. think back to what their teachers did for them, what their parents did for them, and then what they were expected to do for themselves. because in the end, we are running our own race, each one of us — and we have been all along — and kids’ teachers and parents and supportive adults are there to coach, model, and cheer them on, but ultimately our kids have to learn responsibility and they have to be driven by their own desire to self-actualize and get to their own finish lines.