Troubled Youth, Troubled Learning (Dave Reid)

Dave Reid is a high school mathematics teacher in his third year of teaching.   He received his MA in Education and credential in secondary mathematics and physics from Stanford University in 2011.  Dave spent a quarter of a century in high-tech primarily in the wireless and Global Positioning System (GPS) industries.  He earned a BS degree in electrical engineering from George Mason University, and an MBA in finance and marketing from Santa Clara University.  He also attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He blogs as Mr. Math Teacher and tweets as @mathequality.

While the title for this post does not always ring true, in my few years teaching at Title I schools, it often reflects reality.  In fact, rarely does a day go by where no student disrupts the classroom learning environment for one reason or another.  As a fifty-something, I knew this going into teaching; what I did not know was how deleterious these disruptions are to continuity, sanity, and in the limit: opportunity, for my students, not me.  As someone in the classroom every day, hoping above all hope that my students can break out of their behavioral binds, it challenges my every fiber of existence to keep the class focused on our learning objective(s) for the day.

Troubled youth make for troubled learning, not only for themselves, but also for everyone in the classroom.  It is a huge force multiplier of the negative type.  In spite of what is heralded as the balm for these troubles, compassion, empathy, and other soft moves are frequently insufficient to overcome years of ingrained indifference, frustration, anger, resentment, or a host of other emotions, feelings, or attitudes that have overtaken an adolescent overwhelmed by his or her circumstances.  The older the youth, the more deeply embedded the issue or issues.  Now, extend these to one or more adolescents in a classroom, and you get a snapshot of teaching in a Title I school.

A few days ago, for instance, I taught three block periods: two of which are split into two sections apiece of algebra 1 and remedial mathematics, and one AP Calculus section.  The split sections are my attempt to support students who do not possess the arithmetic skill or understanding needed to succeed in algebra.  Fortunately, my administration and the district office support me in this effort.

The AP Calculus students are rarely “egregiously” troublesome, aside from the fact that they have yet to realize that frequent side conversations among the eight groups of four students each frequently distracts others.  At times, when teaching these students, it feels as if I am an onstage performer at a dinner theater with the audience commenting back and forth to each other about their meal, the show, or what not.  Periodically, I tell them that the classroom is not their living room, or a movie theater, where they freely watch or chat as they see fit during “the show.”  They seem a bit startled when I make them aware of their behavior, which puzzles me even more; it is as if I am the first and only teacher to ask them to consider their impact on a classroom.  Notwithstanding their surprise, I persist, as I do not believe college professors will tolerate their behavior any more than I do, for the majority of my calculus students are college bound this fall.

Yet, this is not a post about my privileged students, who make up most of my calculus students.  For they, mostly, are buffered, or far removed, from the intense psychosocial trauma faced by many low-income families.  Simply put, they live free from most of the burdens of poverty.  Burdens, which manifest themselves in low-income families, that inhibit attaining outcomes at the same level as those more privileged for the same level of effort.

My most challenged students, behaviorally and academically, frequent my algebra sections.  Their presence cannot be missed: whether visually or aurally.  While it only takes one student to derail the trajectory of a class, it is a rare day, indeed, when only one student in a class acts to call attention to themselves.  The duration, intensity, and frequency of the derailments vary based on the class composition.

In the face of these ever-present disruptions, I have to: keep students’ attention focused on moving forward with their learning; address the momentary outburst and its subsequent ripples throughout the classroom; all the while doing my best to stay passionate, motivated, and encouraging without having a mental breakdown.  I say that somewhat tongue in cheek.  However, it is not too far from reality.  Whoever mentioned that a teacher has nearly as demanding a job as an air traffic controller was pretty close to the truth.

Which brings me to the student who inspired this post.  John rarely participates positively in class. He seems to possess a boundless ability to draw negative attention to himself throughout a class period. He failed first semester and is on track to do the same this semester. I hope with all of my heart that he wakes up soon and understands how important it is to his future that he pay attention in class, attempt some of his homework, and learn as much as is humanly possible, for he is quite intelligent in spite of what he may believe.

John reminds me of how my younger brother, now deceased, might have been in school.  My brother was often truant.  He ran with the wrong crowd, experimented with things I never knew existed at his age, and dropped out of high school shortly after starting.  My brother may have been one of the silent ones, the student who attempts to disappear among the thirty or so classmates.  He might have giggled frequently chatting away with his classmates.  Regardless, he did not learn.  He missed out on that opportunity, as he was deeply troubled.  I will not go into details except to say that his burdens were too much for him.  They may have been too much for his teacher, if they manifested themselves while in school: I simply do not know.  What I do know is that I became a teacher, in part, to help those like my younger brother, of whom this one student reminds me.  .

I will not hold my breath for John.  I will encourage him as often as possible, in between addressing his behavioral shortcomings, for they do impact the class.  His mother is at her wits end and unsure what to do about him.  I believe my parents felt similarly some thirty plus years ago.  Life is amazingly complex.  Teaching is crazy hard.  It drains me nearly every day.  Yet, there is rarely a day I leave home headed to my classroom not eager to teach. Yes, some troubled youth await me; they are whom I most hope to help.  Yet, I only can do my part to work toward keeping them on a path to graduate; they need to do their part as well.  Time will only tell.

26 Comments

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26 responses to “Troubled Youth, Troubled Learning (Dave Reid)

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  3. art

    A great look at the reality of high school teaching. If only high stakes tests could solve these issues!

  4. Wow. Perceptive, articulate, thoughtful, compassionate. This is one of the best descriptions that I have ever read about what it is like to teach in schools which contain a considerable number of marginal students—marginal because of their family circumstances and academic struggles. I am retiring from such a school district this year after 22 years as a social worker for kids in Special Education. Our country fails them so much and in the process fails their classmates. Many argue that this problem starts with the student’s family but really it starts with our society. There will always be families in chaos and students who struggle academically. That’s the fact. What are we going to do about it?

    • larrycuban

      Dave reads the comments so I hope he will reply to your comment and question. I wish you well in your retirement.

    • Each day I spend in my classroom, the more I question our approach to educating the fifty million or so children in our country’s school systems. The complex interrelationships between society, family, school, and student all contribute to the success or failure of any individual student in the system as well as the tradeoffs involved in designing, operating, and maintaining the system. Unfortunately, the most effective solution for any and all continues to evade our grasp. The charter school movement originally intended to discern elements of what might improve our system. Unfortunately, opposing forces and other competing interests conspire to limit the extent of improvement in vast portions of the system. The past few decades of “reform” within the public system centers on standards (content and process) as well as teacher accountability while the focus outside centers on choice and privatization. I do not see any short-, or long-term solution given the complexities involved. My hope is that someday each family is provided the wherewithal needed to advocate for, prepare, and support their child through primary and secondary school.

  5. I can best empathise by quoting from an article on this issue I wrote in the Times Educational Supplement a couple of years ago.

    “My career has taken me into quite a range of workplaces outside schools and there is not one person I have ever met in those circumstances, who was not a teacher, who would tolerate for one moment the abuse and interactions with children that so many sincere, professional, skilled teachers in the UK endure day after day.”

    All schools, however impoverished or privileged the community they serve, rely on a shared, unspoken covenant between child, parent and teacher. Where that covenant doesn’t exist, schools don’t work. And I make no apologies for quoting again from my article, because how loudly does this need saying?

    “…we have a substantial group of children in our society for whom school is in no sense a meaningful option. What they need, we don’t yet have. And every day that we waste, failing to appreciate this harsh truth, is a day that our wider, healthier society and culture contracts further.”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comments, Joe.

    • Excellent points, all, Joe. It seems the Anglo-based educational systems suffer from a similar fate? Any ideas about the struggles and successes of other international systems, aside from Finland?

      • Although my classroom experience outside the UK has been as a visitor and not a working teacher (which can never really give you the same insight) I have nonetheless been in lots of schools internationally without ever having come across anything comparable, either myself or through talking to teachers.

      • larrycuban

        Thanks, Joe, for commenting on Dave’s post.

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  8. A Skeptic

    Why is the assumption when children “misbehave” in school that everything that a teacher is doing in class is great? How is your class structured? Do you lecture? Do you do complex instruction (I ask since you were trained at STEP)? I ask all of this because you situate the problems that John faces within John himself and less so in the larger system and the particular structures of your own classroom. “He failed,” rather than you failed him. He draws attention to himself rather than yielding to your will. He has “behavioral shortcomings.” You will “not hold your breath for him” which is, of all the admissions, the saddest because it shows that you have essentially quit on him.

    I am not trying to be unduly harsh with this commentary, but blaming the students first without examining the larger structure and one’s own place in it is NOT what kids like John need. I say this having failed many students like John, but the reality is that the more we continue doing whatever it is that we are doing without first looking at how we are, probably, making the problem worse through our own obstinacy and inability to properly situate the location of the real problem.

    Start with yourself and your own practice before you blame kids who are doing what makes sense to them and allows them to not go insane in a mind-numbing and often pointless system. You say that “we have not figured out what works,” to which I reply, we have, we just do not have the will to do it.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for your comments and questions. I will leave it to Dave to respond.

    • The focus of my essay centered on the challenges troubled students bring into classrooms and how that impacts their learning, and that of others. As you point out, there are a multitude of factors that impact a student’s learning, many of which are teacher controlled, many of which are not. In the essay, I chose not to expound on the points you mention, such as structure, pedagogy, systemic issues, etc. so as not to defocus the discussion; there are too many factors in play in education to discuss them in such a short post.

      Also, please consider that you use the word ‘assume’ and ‘assumption’ a few times in describing my writing. I suggest you consider their applicability to your commentary as well. Simply because I did not describe my classroom management, pedagogy, policy views, frequency of reflection and changes to my practice, role in the situation, etcetera does not mean that they are not an integral component of my teaching. I would be a rather shortsighted teacher if I believed in a rigid, inflexible approach to the dynamics of a classroom.

      Lastly, I appreciate your emphasis on the student, which is our raison d’etre as teachers. At the same time, we have a roomful of students, some of which struggle to succeed in spite of a host of accommodations, adaptations, pedagogical shifts, etc. While this is not any teacher’s desire, given the constraints imposed upon us via externalities, the vast diversity in students’ academic and behavioral abilities, and our own shortcomings of which we constantly try to improve, there are only so many moves we can make that yield success. Such is the reality of the classroom, versus the ideals for wish we strive.

    • Kateh

      I believe this claim is unsubstantiated by the essay: “Why is the assumption when children “misbehave” in school that everything that a teacher is doing in class is great?” I simply did not read anything to that effect.

      Certainly in education policy and news these days, the reporting is very focused on what teachers are doing, getting rid of bad teachers, and improving test scores.

      The perspective offered by this article really speaks to my experience working in a Title I school. I’d like to see it published more widely and brought to the attention of politicians driving education reform. I’d also like to add that it’s backed up by neuroscience–conditions correlated with poverty such as high stress levels can actually cause changes to the brain with consequences to a child’s learning. I’m no expert, but here’s a link from the NIH you may find interesting http://www.nih.gov/news/health/aug2012/nichd-28.htm.

  9. Stern

    I’m with Dave, Skeptic (certainly not with the 22-year social worker who collected her chits and retired, sans meaningful contribution). Disaffection is a poor excuse for, well, an excuse. High school is the four most important years of John’s life (until the next four). Even an imperfect frontal lobe allows him, and other students described by Dave and well known to us all, to pipe down and listen.

    Us fifty-somethings have to hang together, or we shall surely hang separately.

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