Xavier appeared seemingly out of nowhere sizing me up in his black sweatshirt and black sneakers. His hair hung in a blunt cut right above his eyebrows, and he looked a bit older than the other 10th grade students even though we were already well into the third quarter. When I asked where he was from, he mumbled California, and while he wasn’t impolite, there was a hint of rascal that twinkled behind his eyes.
“Xay!” a student yelled from the back of the classroom. Xavier rushed past me to give a student named Joel an intricate handshake making their fingers resemble birds in flight. Joel was also a California transplant; he had the mind of a poet but struggled mightily with reading and hated school in general. Though the age of a sophomore, Joel had only earned three high school credits. Joel had the reputation to prove that he pushed boundaries, but when he was in class, he wanted to learn. He was both worn out by and deeply rewarded by the learning process. The class and his classmates made room for his deep thinking. It made him a joy to teach, and he became the classroom itinerant Yoda. I wondered if Xavier would be some version of Joel.
When a student comes into a class several weeks into the third quarter, it can be difficult to know where they need to begin. Teachers need to quickly learn their personality because by this time a learning community is established. It is much like welcoming a new staff member; if not properly acclimated to the work environment and culture, productivity may suffer. Teachers must welcome the new student so seamlessly that it protects and strengthens the integrity of the existing learning community.
I pretended not to hear Xavier ask a cluster of students what type of teacher I was. Nima, a student notorious for speaking her mind whether you wanted to hear it or not, volunteered her insight.
“The first thing that you need to know about her is this: If you came in an orange, you’re going to be orange juice. She won’t give you any answers. She makes you work for everything.” You must understand that, while I viewed this as a compliment, it was intended to be a scathing review, an accusation mixed with a backhanded praise. I’d been the Life Ruiner and even El Diablo, but never had I been called a juicer.
This class that Xavier entered had been through quite a bit with another teacher and me. The class was a collaborative one, which means that at least a third of them had learning, psychological, or social challenges that made school difficult. The needs of the class are met by two teachers who partner to make learning more accessible to all of the students. We tortured them with constant reading and questioning. They were called on mercilessly to provide answers and forced to be patient with each other while they figured out when ideas were logical. They liked the two of us as people, but as a teachers, we stressed them out because they had to continuously problem solve. We provided encouragement and showed them where to look but refused to tell them what to see. They were a sweet, engaging group of students, but even during the third quarter a good number of them were tragically unaware of how intelligent they could be.
Imagine being told, off and on for 11 years, you were slow or otherwise defective: You start to believe that narrative. By the 10th grade, they are well aware that they struggle academically, but this is not the issue. The issue is how they negatively internalize that struggle.
There is an understood narrative for Xavier and Joel and Nima and many of the students in that class. The message is that they are expected to produce less than their peers. That message is mostly unspoken, but we say it when we treat academic failures like a method to define an entire person’s potential instead of a stepping stone towards true learning. We say it when we expect less from students who struggle with either the concepts taught in or the concept of school in general. We say it when we remove the necessary struggles from students because we don’t want them to be uncomfortable, even temporarily. We say it when we value them getting an A more than actually learning the skill, because while these ideas should be mutually exclusive our own academic histories are proof that they are not. We say it when we abandon them academically to focus on making them obedient through a high focus on behavior.
Some people would look at a class full of students who struggle with reading and assume that behavior would be the biggest issue. It isn’t. The biggest struggle is getting the students to believe that they can be more than who they are at that moment. The struggle is communicating the relevance of learning to not just their future lives, but their present. This disrupts the narrative. They must believe that their brains can do more than they give it credit for if they learn how to work it. Joel and Xavier never imagined themselves as high school graduates, so what we learned had to be seen as possible and useful to them immediately.
No one in Joel’s immediate family had ever graduated from high school. He was getting older but his classification in school was staying the same. He came to school because he legally had to come and because friends like Xavier were with him. How does a teacher convince a high school student with three credits that she sees him as a competent thinker, writer, and a graduate? She presses.
When a teacher tells a student who struggles that they can and will learn, that they will work hard with the teacher right beside them until they master a skill, students love and hate the teacher for it. They will complain, but they will keep showing up with questions that grow more and more insightful. This is the paradox of being pushed as a student: It feels like torture and love at the same time.
Teachers cannot have weak constitutions when students resist learning. We know what they resent more is being treated like their ideas don’t matter enough to be refined. A good teacher listens to a student’s concerns and asks the student to assist in navigating the concern. It is both an effective and deceptive strategy because the student never gets to escape being a problem solver. The trick is to never allow the thinker-in-training to stop thinking.
But here is my fear: we are slipping into a mindset that values the grade A more than actually learning the skill. That the struggle of learning will be traded for the comfort of a checklist that communicates falsely “because I did all of the steps I am just as intelligent as someone who can apply the lesson to identify or solve a problem.” That being an independent thinker will be sacrificed on the altar of being right quickly. Learning is messy and at times arduous. Regurgitating the concepts is not the same as applying them -- is not the same as creating with them. Parrots can regurgitate trivia, but students are going to have to know how to problem solve. I am not alone in this fear, but I watch educators daily use this fear as fuel to continue pushing (or juicing) students.
Students like Xavier, Joel, Nima, and the rest of the class have only just begun to fight for their educations. One or two years is not enough to break down years of feeling like you’re too dumb to do anything but work -- to be valued for your body/your labor instead of your mind. But it’s a good start. They have and need teachers, administrators, custodial staff, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers all encouraging them the go further in their learning. They need to hear it until they begin to believe and act on it.
Late in the fourth quarter, Joel turned around on his way to the bus, and said: “You believe in me, huh?”
“And you know I do,” I said as I watched him smile and disappear with Xavier who waited outside the door for him. That confirmation was all he needed to hear at that moment. Sometimes, we need to borrow the confidence of others until we get some of our own.
So, no. Students don’t need the answers or for things made unnecessarily easy because they feel a bit uncomfortable when learning something that is challenging. They need assistance and encouragement through the tough spots. Teachers must “juice” them until the goodness, brilliance, and confidence come pouring forth.
BIO: Natalie Croney is a teacher at Bowling Green High School. She serves as the English Department Head.