Have you ever cried over a student?
I have. His name was Ernesto*, and he’d been in the United States for less than a year. He spoke no English at all — and his parents didn’t speak any English at home. He was mainstreamed into my science classroom without any real support. I don’t speak Spanish — and our district had no resources in Spanish that addressed our grade level curriculum.
The minute I met Ernesto, I knew that I was going to be in for a long year.
It’s no easy task to teach the content in our sixth grade science curriculum — ideas about heat transfer and plate tectonics and the cycling of matter through the ecosystem — to kids who have spent their whole lives speaking English. Teaching that same curriculum to a Spanish speaking student when you have no additional training or resources can feel completely impossible.
I jumped in with both feet, though, because that’s what teachers do. I used online translation tools to translate as much content into Spanish as I could. I reached out to district office staffers who supervised our English as a Second Language services for ideas. I hit the ol’ Google Machine — and somehow, I even found a third grade science textbook written in Spanish.
But eventually, I started to struggle. The amount of time, energy and effort that I was investing into finding and developing individual materials for Ernesto was honestly overwhelming. I was getting to school at least an hour early just to pull something simple together — and those simple materials weren’t all that interesting to Ernesto.
So he became a “behavior problem”.
He stopped coming to class — and when I would track him down in the bathroom or wandering the hallways, he’d return to class only to sit there and refuse to even try. I’d get frustrated with him — but looking back, his behaviors were a reflection of the support he was receiving and the learning experience I was creating. Who am I kidding: He was acting the exact same way I would act if I were in a learning space that didn’t even come close to meeting my needs.
Have you spotted the problem in my story yet?
I was working alone to meet Ernesto’s needs. I wasn’t working as a part of a collaborative team in a professional learning community. The success or failure of Ernesto rested completely on my shoulders — and I didn’t have the unique set of professional skills necessary to help him. Worse yet, if he’d been assigned to another teacher with a different set of skills in the exact same school, he COULD have been successful. Luck of the draw — being assigned to my classroom — meant that he lost an entire year of learning.
THAT’s why I believe in PLCs.
It’s not because I’m driven to see my school make higher test scores and be ranked towards the top of district and state level performance. Those things mean nothing to me.
It’s because I have Ernestos in my classroom every single year — kids that I don’t have the knowledge and skills to serve well. What’s more, EVERY year, there are Ernestos in the classrooms of my colleagues — kids that they struggle to serve well. That’s not an admission of weakness. It’s a statement of truth. Our classrooms are incredibly diverse places.
If we continue to work alone — to rely on our own know-how or to draw from our own professional bag of tricks — there’s simply no chance that every kid will succeed. Instead, the small handful of kids that have needs that align nicely with our individual strengths will succeed. Everyone else will stall or struggle.
But if we embrace the notion that “these are our kids” and open ourselves to genuine collaboration with our peers, we can pool our talents and improve our practice. I’ll bring MY strengths at teaching students to understand nonfiction text to the table. You bring YOUR strengths at structuring inquiry based learning experiences or working with students who are learning a new language. If we ever feel stumped, we can identify a few practices with promise, try them out in our classrooms, and identify those that have a positive impact on our learners.
Together, everyone achieves more, right? Including our Ernestos.
This is an equity issue, y’all. Plain and simple. And I don’t care how uncomfortable that makes you feel.
If you genuinely believe that every kid deserves an equal opportunity to master the skills that are essential for success in an increasingly complex and competitive world, then you simply can’t settle for school cultures that allow teachers to work alone. No one teacher has the professional skills to serve every student well.
Stated more simply, if you settle for working alone, you are failing children.
Are you okay with that?
Find a team and collaborate.
*While Ernesto is a pseudonym, he was very much a real student. He went on to struggle throughout his time on our building — and I can’t help but think that was because of the poor start that he got in my room. I think of him often because I knew that I was failing him — but I didn’t do anything to reach out to my colleagues for help. Today, I’d turn to my peers — and I know that together, we’d find a way to help him achieve because we really believe that our collective capacity is far greater than our individual ability.
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