When COVID-19 outbreaks forced schools to switch to all-virtual teaching for spring 2020, low-income families faced yet another obstacle in the battle to ensure equal education for their children. Limited computer availability, parents in low-paying service jobs, and dysfunctional family situations all compromised the home-based learning environment by depriving students of structured routine and up-to-date resources. As of this writing, it remains unclear what the long-term effects will be—or when students will be able to return to on-site classes.
Not that high-risk situations are unique to times of crisis—or to students from poorer neighborhoods. At any time and in any demographic category, most teachers have students struggling with any number of progress-impeding situations:
If you’re the teacher whose heart is quietly breaking for a student trying to keep up under such conditions, there are ways you can help.
Educate yourself to recognize learning disabilities, physical or mental illness, and traumatic home situations. (These can be discernible even in virtual communications.) If your school offers training, take advantage of it; if not, propose it. And whenever you can, get to know your students’ families and find out if they need referrals to low-cost resources.
One teacher was assigned a particularly difficult class and was warned he’d have to “command their respect.” As he walked into the classroom for his first day, he stumbled and fell headlong to the floor, unleashing a flood of derisive laughter.
He stood and calmly announced, “This is my first lesson to you: Anyone can fall flat on their face and still rise again.” The laughter stopped immediately.
Whether or not you can speak one-on-one with troubled students, encourage everyone—and take the lead yourself—in talking about personal struggles and lessons learned. High-risk situations are often worsened by believing, “Everyone has it all together except me.” Evidence that a person can fail many times, and still maintain self-confidence, helps high-risk students understand there’s hope for them too.
There are two kinds of teachers who are no help to high-risk students. One teacher blames the child for everything: “Why can’t you keep up/pay attention/sit still?!?” The other teacher thinks, “Poor thing, having it so rough”—and completely excuses the child for disrupting classes and neglecting work.
By all means, be understanding when a student is struggling: but don’t absolve anyone of personal responsibility, however understandable their actions may be. Everyone should be expected to work to the best of their abilities, and should face the same consequences for willful rule-breaking. Making exceptions for a “poor thing” actually reinforces the idea that the at-risk student is inherently defective and shouldn’t bother working to improve. The better attitude is, “I know it’s difficult for you, but I also know you have the power to make something of your life.”
If you want students to believe in themselves, set an example by believing in them!