Why do we teach what we teach? Why did I choose to teach high school students who are academically at risk, and you chose to teach the subject and students you teach? P. Palmer (2007) might have an answer to this. Palmer says “We were drawn to a body of knowledge because it sheds light on our identity as well as on the world. We did not merely find a subject to teach- the subject also found us” (p.26). We make choices in order to reveal our identity- who we are and what we value. Did I choose to teach students who are academically at risk because teaching these students enables me to reveal my identity, my values and convictions? Well, maybe.

Before I go on let me just say of course teachers don’t always have a choice when it comes to what they teach. One semester early in my teaching career, I found myself “choosing” to teach a cooking class to a group of students. I had no idea how to teach cooking to a group of 16 year olds, but I knew I had to “choose” to teach this cooking class if I wanted a job.

Many high school students who are academically at risk do not feel part of the mainstream in high school. They feel like outsiders. I can relate to that feeling. I’ve often felt like an outsider myself. I’ve even felt like an outsider in my own family growing up. I actually used to wonder if I were adopted. But, then when I’d look at those old black and white photos of my Mom’s side of the family, I could see my face in their faces so I knew I wasn’t adopted. I was just different than my parents and siblings when I was growing up, and I still am different. I think I might take after my maternal grandfather, but since I’ve never met him I can’t be sure.

My family immigrated to Canada from Europe when I was a small child. We had to learn English and the Canadian way of life. I still remember getting laughed at in elementary school because I would make mistakes because I wasn’t up to speed on “Canadianisms”. Even in high school, I felt I wasn’t part of the mainstream but always on the edge of things. I loved learning but hated high school. My family moved a lot so I was the new kid a lot, not part of an established groups.
I decided to become a teacher because I wanted to share my love of learning with students. Early in my teaching career, I had the opportunity to take special education qualifications and having those qualifications led to a teaching position with young offenders in an open custody facility or group home type of setting and in a closed custody or jail type of setting. I could empathize with these troubled kids and wanted to show them they could turn things around. Of course I didn’t condone their criminal behaviour. I tried to separate what they had done from who they could be. I was able to develop positive relationships with them and enjoyed working with them, but I didn’t enjoy the physical working environment. The jail setting eventually got to me. So after 3 years of teaching in these alternative settings, I returned to teaching in a regular school and spent the rest of my career supporting academically at risk students–many with learning disabilities– as a classroom teacher and monitor support.
Teaching students who were academically at risk was a good fit for me. I could relate to students who had difficulties in school because I have family members who have learning disabilities. I know how frustrating school can be for some students. I also know that just because you have problems in school does not mean you are not intelligent. It just means you have to find ways to get around your learning difficulties. I enjoyed helping my students do this.
I think that choosing–when I could choose–to teach students who were academically at risk enabled me to reveal my identity, my values and convictions. I think that’s why I enjoyed teaching so much. My teaching assignment enabled me to be authentic.


Palmer, P. (2007). The courage to teach. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

goodclassroom managementI think it prudent from time to time to re-examine my philosophy of classroom management.  My philosophy of classroom management  has changed over the years.  When I was a newbie teacher,  I thought if  I used the right techniques for classroom management everything would be OK. Well, I’ve learned  and used many classroom management techniques over the years, but I have come to the conclusion that while  excellent management techniques are necessary for classroom success, they are not sufficient for classroom success.  I found that developing an authentic relationship with my students helped my classroom management more than any of the latest classroom management techniques. When kids saw that I cared about them, they better managed their behaviour in class.  I start to develop positive relationships with my students on the first day of school  by asking these nine questions. How do you develop positive relationships with your student?

I’ve been thinking about the coming school year and wanted to share the following blog post wi
Usually during the summer break after I’ve been away from the craziness of the June classroom for a while, a good long while, I begin to reflect on my teaching practice for the previous year. Usually this reflection includes reflecting on expectations, mine and my students. I want to be sure my expectations are reasonable given the nature of the changing 21st century classroom and students. I’ve taught for 30 years so some things have really changed and some haven’t. Today, I’m reflecting on things my students have told me they expect from teachers that really have nothing to do with cell phones, ipads, tablets etc or the 21st century. Students have told me they would like teachers to

  • not abuse their power and order students around as if they control their lives;
  • respect students personal lives and not bug them about personal things that are none of their business;
  • not yell at students because that just makes them mad and not want to listen;
  • not talk about themselves all the time and show that they’re smarter than students are because students find it discouraging;
  • not treat students like they don’t know anything;
  • have respect for students no matter what they’ve have done before;
  • listen to both sides of the story;
  • be equally fair to all students;
  • try to help all students have the best results in class;
  • give less homework because it is hard to do homework by themselves if they cannot ask the teacher;
  • give more free time in class to do homework;
  • give less homework because it is boring and takes away from time with family and friends;
  • let students eat in class because sometimes they are hungry in class and can’t stay awake in class;
  • not give homework before the holidays;
  • let students listen to music while working in class;
  • let students watch videos in class and not have to write about them;
  • to want students to pass their classes;
  • to be helpful, respectful, and fun to be around.

Basically students want teachers to respect them, but then of course teachers want students to respect them, too. Respect is a two way street that is constantly under construction. My students’ expectations help inform my teaching practice and enables me to create an inviting classroom where my students and I can do our best.

You might want to ask your students to tell you what they expect from teachers. I found students are not shy about revealing their expectations. The expectations also make good starting points for discussions.

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What are we to do about high school kids who fail courses in grades nine and  ten and don’t seem to care?  We are being told if a student doesn’t earn 16 credits by the time he is 16 years old, there is an excellent chance the student will drop out of school and not graduate. In the province of Ontario where I teach, high school students are expected to earn eight credits in grade nine and another eight credits in grade 10 for a total of 16 credits.

There’s so much pressure on teachers to do what it takes to get these kids to pass courses.  At the end of the semester when teachers are writing report cards, sometimes teachers are called down to the office and told strongly encouraged by the administration to change a failing mark to a passing mark. The word rigor seems to have no place in these conversations.  Small wonder teachers are disillusioned and discouraged.

High school teachers are always complaining about the social promotion that goes on in the elementary schools where students who fail subjects in a grade still get to go (are socially promoted) to the next grade even though they’ve  failed .  These students come to grade 9 with huge gaps in their knowledge and skill sets. These gaps set students up for failure. I think socially promoting students is morally wrong. We’re not doing students any favors by passing them now when they haven’t mastered course content  just to fail them later because the gaps in their knowledge prevent them from mastering the next grade’s content.  That’s not being respectful of our students.

I know, I know there’s a huge debate about social promotion, about a kid’s self-esteem etc. I actually haven’t seen any studies on the topic of social promotion. I can only tell you what I know from my own personal professional experience. Maybe this summer I’ll search the literature to see what research says and share my findings here.

I teach students who have been socially promoted, and I see many of these students continue to fail and be at-risk academically in grades nine and ten. They often do not earn 16 credits by the time they are 16. Academically at-risk students who continually fail courses are kicked out of regular high school when they reach 18 (legally they have to stay in school until 18) and sent to alternative schools to continue their education.  Some of my students have come back to visit me and have told me that the alternative schools didn’t work for them either. Some students admit it’s their fault they didn’t succeed in high school, but some students blame the school system and certain teachers for their lack of success. They may have a point, but that’s a whole other can of worms.

I’ve been meaning to read Alexander Russo’s Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors for some time now and since school is out for the summer, I can.  I’m enjoying it immensely as well as learning a lot about the challenges of school reform. Russo’s  book is about school reform- a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately given my frustrations with 16 by 16. Specifically, Russo’s book is the story about the challenges Green Dot and its founder Steve Barr encounter while trying to reform Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles. Surprisingly, I hadn’t heard about the Green Dot story.  It must have been on the news and in the papers.  I don’t know how I missed it, but I did.  I’m certainly going online  to see what I can find to fill in my gaps about Green Dot and Barr.

While reading Stray Dogs, Saints and Saviors, I came across this passage that really spoke to me.

Letting a kid pass a class in which he’d barely learned anything, in the hopes that he’s catch up later and benefit from having moved along, or flunking a kid and making him dig in at least a bit, with the knowledge that such a might not happen? It was a difficult call- and an age-old question. Teachers-and schools-have been passing kids along for decades.( Russo, p. 93).

I naively thought this problem of passing kids along was a problem just in Ontario, Canada. I hadn’t realized that teachers in other jurisdictions are having to make the same difficult calls about passing or not passing academically at-risk students. What happens in schools in other countries like Japan, France, Germany, China, Scotland?  What do they do with kids who really don’t pass? I’d like to know.

photo thanks to dullhunk

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