What If…? Looking Back at School and How Delicate Success Can Be

My daughter graduated college this month. As I look back at her K-12 experience, certain moments stand out as pivotal. All children have moments when just the right kind of support is needed. The goal is to seize those opportunities. Even a hair’s difference in how they are felt or managed can affect a student’s success.

My daughter started school with a good foundation.  She went to a quality preschool. We read to her daily.

What if every student was prepared for kindergarten?

In kindergarten, my daughter noticed there was a table of students who were reading more. She decided she wanted to be at that table, and so she put more effort into learning to read better, and soon was at that table. Her teacher encouraged her.

What would have happened if she had a learning difference and lost confidence, or her teacher didn’t pay attention?

Her first and second grade teacher pushed. Hard. Homework every night, tailored to what you could do. Once you showed you could accomplish one level, you were given the next. Students who struggled were matched with parent volunteers who met daily with them. This teacher organized for success.

What if this teacher was unable to deal with the wide variety of abilities in her class?  What if she wasn’t as confident in her work?

In her third grade class, there was a classmate on the autism spectrum who had an aide who helped him out. He had lots of school support and parents who were very involved. But, he had classroom meltdowns and outbursts. It took the teacher’s time, and interrupted other students. But it worked out. I believe it was good for him, and for the other students.

What if this child hadn’t experienced a regular classroom? And, what if the other students hadn’t learned about this kind of diversity?

Mean girls appeared in fourth grade. There were hurt feelings from time to time. My daughter had a good teacher who paid attention to that, and she had parents at home to talk with.  She had other friends and family who always embraced her, even with new glasses and new braces.

What if there wasn’t a support system available when she was bullied? What if she had held it all in and didn’t tell anyone when she was sad?

In middle school – the most terrifying for parents for some reason – she was nurtured. Her team of teachers knew every child and communicated enthusiasm and support. It is a time children can feel awkward and try to figure where they fit.

What if there were no teachers who really paid extra attention to each preteen? What if there was nowhere to turn when frustrations grew?

In high school you can get lost, especially if you are quiet. My daughter was academically prepared and confident, but reserved socially. She found some extra curricular activities she liked and excelled in. She had some excellent teachers; a couple for multiple years. They were nurturing, but challenging. I remember one time her English teacher wrote on her daily writing assignment, “I am disappointed, Emma.”  She hadn’t given it her best effort.  She cried. It made an impact. It happened only once.  Another day her pre-calculus teacher looked out at the faces in the class and said, “It looks like we need to talk.” She set aside her lesson and they just talked. My daughter remembers it had been the “worst day;” a particular challenging one for her team.

What if the first teacher had given her a pass on working hard? What if the other didn’t recognize when a break in the tension was necessary?  What if my daughter was so frustrated she stopped trying?

It is clear after writing this, that the most prominent players in this story are teachers and parents. That story is true for all children. Weaknesses in either area for any length of time can be damaging for children. We can’t expect parents to always make up for weak teaching, nor can we expect classroom teachers to make up the difference in weak or absent parents.

The reality is that there must be support systems in place so that teachers can teach and children get what they need to succeed.

Family resource professionals have told me too many kids start school completely unprepared. And, many children have significant special needs that require extra staff and attention. Specialized school staff – nurses, counselors, speech pathologists, behavior coaches – step in to form a stronger foundation for learning.

What if we had a system in place to make sure no child fell through the cracks? What if there were no cracks?

I am glad my child’s struggles didn’t define her. Her successes define her. All children can be successful, but if they are overwhelmed with struggles it is hard to overcome.

Students overcome their struggles in public schools every day. It takes all of us celebrating the successes of our schools so they have the resources and the resilience it takes to do this work every day, every year.

What if…?

About Debbie Wesslund

I served on the Jefferson County Board of Education, Louisville, KY, from 2007-2014 and continue to be an advocate for public schools. There’s a high-level dialogue about public education that swings from positive to negative, with many who seek the spotlight voicing an inaccurate picture of our public schools. Words matter. They get lodged in our public perceptions, creating a narrative that doesn’t reflect the real story. There’s so much more to public education, and much worth applauding in Kentucky and across the country. The stakes are high: public education is the most serious public business we are about as a community, a state and a nation. We must continually renew our resolve to support public education. There’s always more promise in building something up, than in tearing it down.
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One Response to What If…? Looking Back at School and How Delicate Success Can Be

  1. Brad Matthews says:

    Very thoughtful piece! Emma benefitted from both caring teachers and committed and involved parents. Having spent decades as an educator in the public schools, I know what a difference a caring and well trained teacher can make. I also know that support at home or the lack there of is huge. What if we could figure out a way to make sure that all children were prepared to enter Kindergarten. What if we could provide more opportunities for family literacy. I am concerned about the lack of preparedness for entering school and for supporting families of young children who need help getting them ready for school. It really does take a village to raise a child.

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