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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Most Important Need: The Need to Learn

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Am I sacrilegious by saying we should not spend so much time worrying about what happens in a student's home and should spend more time creating effective learning environments at school? I teach a class for brand new teachers and one of the things that worries me a lot is the overbearing, idealistic desire to help the downtrodden and woe begotten students with everything but their education.

Aspiring teachers spend fours year going to college to become a well-trained teacher and then as soon as they do their student teaching, some turn their backs on teaching and want to be social workers instead. I come in contact with many teachers in training who think that their number one calling in life is to dig deep into the lives and homes of their students, ostensibly, so they can better understand them to teach them, but in fact, the purpose has little to do with education.

Staying Focused

If you go into any school, you can find all sorts of state and federal programs that promote and are a result of this kind of thinking. Experienced teachers will tell you that there are so many "social" mandates that they have to take care of in the classroom, that they have a hard time getting down to simply teaching -- homeless, second language learning, special education, migrant, nutrition, and at-risk are just a few of the categories teachers are challenged with.

I responded to one of my teacher prep students in the following manner when she expressed surprise and great concern for all the problems students deal with at their homes:

You started off your post [it's an online class] with an emotional plea regarding the dire situations in which your students live. Let me remind you that of course we care for the students and their plights at home...but the best way we can help them is not to solve their home problems, but to help them learn in the very best possible way. These students know that education is the solution for many of their problems and make tremendous sacrifices to come to school.

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We, then, are obligated to use every ounce of our energy, strength, and creativity to provide the very best learning environment for them so that their sacrifice will not have been in vain. For some of these students, coming to school is a way to escape from the problems at home. So why do we want to rub salt in the wounds and bring to the forefront all of the problems they face at home?

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We are expert teachers, not social workers. If you want to be a social worker for these students, I guarantee that it will get in the way of your teaching. The best thing we should do with a student in need of assistance, if the students don't know where to get help with his or her home situation, is to point them to a professional who can help them, and then we must be the professional teacher that they want and need us to be. I could tell you some hair-raising stories about my students; and some students will always come from depressing backgrounds (rich and poor). Our job is to help them re-direct their attention on the future and the investment of time and energy that education requires of them now. Ultimately, education can help them see that there is a better way to do things.

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Also, we have to be realistic too; some students may play "woe is me" to a naive teacher...Does this mean that I am unsympathetic to the plight of many students who find their way in to public schools today? No. What it means is that I am more sympathetic with their most powerful needs and I desire to use my skill and expertise as a teacher to provide a tremendous service that is more valuable than money, food, shelter or clothing. I desire to satisfy a ravenous need that every child born with in this world. It is more urgent than hunger and thirst, more pressing than warmth or shelter. It matches and sometimes eclipses the important need to feel loved.

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I am talking about the need to learn. This is something hardwired into our physiology... and our psychology. We are by nature, learning machines. Therefore, if I am a true teacher, then that is the greatest need that I can help the student to satisfy and if I do my job correctly, I will enlarge and enhance that ravenous need to learn in each student.

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I remember a student who came to school with bullet holes in his coat and limped around with an injured leg. I asked him about it and he shrugged it off saying something about if it was his time to go, then, oh well. Then I realized that he was at school, in my classroom, expecting to learn something important from me, his teacher. I could have made his predicament the center of a discussion on culture differences and the causes of gang warfare.

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Some teachers would have applauded me for being willing to change my plans for this one student. But that is not what he needed from me. That would have been doing him a disservice. He needed to learn... and wanted to learn because he was there and had made a tremendous effort to limp to school in order to participate in a building-block learning experience that as a professional educator, I had painstakingly prepared for my students.

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I led the students in what I recall was a great interactive learning experience for him and the other students. They created a Spanish newspaper, complete with obituaries, sports, classifieds and news articles. Guess which part he wanted to do? The Travel and Foods section! Had we done the "socially" expedient thing, he would have been robbed of that awesome experience to explore and expand his knowledge of things he was interested in.

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I am wondering if I am off base on this one? Does it bother any of you when teachers and administrators talk so much about caring for student needs, but don't consider learning as one of them? I look forward to reading your thoughts on this.

Comments (34)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

marjorie fox's picture
marjorie fox
Education Consultant

I'm so glad that you took the time to write this article. I totally agree with your assessment of how teachers should focus their time. As teachers, we have no power to change the home situation. We do have the power to create a secure and positive classroom learning environment - one in which our students can thrive!

Josie's picture
Josie
teacher & math coach

Great article.

Students have all sorts of experiences outside of school, and many carry burdens we all wish no child should have to shoulder. They need us to know this and understand. We can prove to them that we do by making our classrooms safe havens, consistent and fair, interesting and challenging. Our students need us to be leaders of, perhaps, the one environment where they know what to expect, where they can find themselves in their studies, where they can let their burdens go for awhile. Helping students see that they can also make school this place for themselves is really important. We can support students in growing and thriving by inspiring them. We can help organize learning experiences in our classrooms that are based on collaboration with others in order to help our students learn to trust. We can help students mature and grow by having expectations for them that require them to stretch their thinking, ask questions, complete assignments... be responsible.

While we cannot change their home lives, we most certainly help make school that one safe place to grow.

Vicky's picture

If all we needed to do was "teach them how to think" to avoid the victim mentality, then why isn't everyone doing that already? We're missing the important part of knowing ourselves and how we can grow and thrive so we can be the change we want to see with kids. I just experienced a training that would help with that - check it out at www.8togreat.com You don't have to be trained as a social worker, but as a change agent - from the inside out.

Stephen Portz's picture
Stephen Portz
High School Engineering (Career and Technical)

Darn! Everyone took the "great article" tack, so I guess I'll have to disagree. No really, guess I am cursed on both ends, me a public school teacher and my wife, a social worker. Actually its our children who are cursed... haha. I think the point is well made that we should focus on what we are supposed to do and do it well and that is the best service to the at risk child. Maintain a professional distance with our charges - easier said than done. Going back to Maslow's, if a student's basic needs are not being met we will never get to higher order processes needed for learning. There are truisms about the victimization complex, we can never overcome unless we take responsibility for ourselves. Fortunately, student issues can be outsourced to social workers and agencies, but what do we do when those aren't present? Being made aware of a problem, expressing sympathy, only goes so far without action, then it is neglect on our part. It is kind of like the cellphone effect: In days gone by before cellphones, a person stranded by the side of the road elicited stops from concerned motorists, now no one stops because they all assume the motorist has a cellphone and can get their own help. If we are not careful we too easily assume a government program will come to the rescue so we don't have to. A difficult line to walk...

Amy Valens's picture
Amy Valens
retired teacher, Lagunitas School District Open Classroom

I agree with Mr. Johnson that school is the place to "enlarge and enhance that ravenous need to learn in each student." But in my book that includes social-emotional learning and building lessons that students identify with. This does not mean trying to solve their home situations, or digging for personal information. But it does mean acknowledging them as individuals, listening to their perspectives, and affirming the validity of their experiences.

Dave's picture

I think this article misses a number of important points. First off, you can't generalize for all children. I teach 2nd and 3rd grade and they need extra social and emotional support, which is developmentally appropriate for them. Second, it sounds like there are apparently social workers available everywhere and trees that grow money to support these extra programs so teachers don't have to be the "social worker." If you've paid attention to the budgets of school districts across the country, including mine, many of these services are being cut substantially, if not completely. If public education were the ideal you speak of, more people would get into teaching and stay in it. That just isn't the case.

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia
Facilitator

Hi Ben,
A very thought-provoking article. At first, when I read the opening paragraphs, I was quite concerned - I thought you were advocating that we ignore these issues and simply focus on school. However, I see that you are not advocating that at all; rather, you are suggesting that our role is not to solve social issues and problems, but rather to understand them and then ensure excellent education follows.

I think this concept of 'understanding our students' is crucial; I'm a firm believer in the idea that learning begins with relationships, and, in this case, the relationship between the student and the teacher is the most important one. To develop a relationship, however, requires an understanding of some sorts from both parties. Therefore, we need to know a little bit about each of our students, their interests and their contexts, in order to better teach them.

It does not mean, however, that we can or should try to solve their problems - although it does mean, as some other commentators have suggested, that we can help them learn how to solve their social problems, and not just their academic ones.

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Rusty:

Thanks. I get frustrated with the "You poor thing attitude". I understand the desire to help them, but as I stated, I think it is misplaced. If we could just quit handing out fishes long enough to teach fishing, we would solve the problems we are faced with in our public schools.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I'm a school counselor and have echoed these same sentiments to counselors and teachers alike for the last 10 years. We can't change what's happened to them or lower the bar because of it. That will only create a victim mentality and allow it to become an excuse for not breaking the cycle. There's no special education or accommodation after graduation for most students. What they're dealing with is real, it's happening so how do we "help"? We create positive educational relationships with each student based on mutual respect and education as the vehicle for change. Then, we teach them how to think so they can problem solve and be resilient in the face of adversity.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Kieth:

Thanks for understanding my point. Elementary through high school teachers simply need to focus on what they do best and leave the social issues to experts who can focus on what they do best. Providing the tools that the students will be able to critically analyze their behaviors will help them resolve their own problems. Teacher/student relations are critical to the learning process and a teacher has to know something about the student and the student has to know about the teacher in order for those relations to exist. But a teacher should never aspire to resolve a student's challenging extra school existence without having first inspired the student with the love of learning that the teacher has, and provided the essential tools for acquiring that learning. A student will never catch on to their true critical role as chief learners in the classroom without a thoughtful and caring teacher to help them.

As a counselor, you would never presume to take on the role of teacher, but many teachers do not hesitate to take on your role, and they are much less prepared to do this than you are to be a teacher.

Keep the pressure on-- that is all we can do to refocus the teachers on doing what they are trained to do.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]Hi Ben,

A very thought-provoking article. At first, when I read the opening paragraphs, I was quite concerned - I thought you were advocating that we ignore these issues and simply focus on school. However, I see that you are not advocating that at all; rather, you are suggesting that our role is not to solve social issues and problems, but rather to understand them and then ensure excellent education follows.

I think this concept of 'understanding our students' is crucial; I'm a firm believer in the idea that learning begins with relationships, and, in this case, the relationship between the student and the teacher is the most important one. To develop a relationship, however, requires an understanding of some sorts from both parties. Therefore, we need to know a little bit about each of our students, their interests and their contexts, in order to better teach them.

It does not mean, however, that we can or should try to solve their problems - although it does mean, as some other commentators have suggested, that we can help them learn how to solve their social problems, and not just their academic ones.[/quote]

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Leilani:

Bravo! Except in those cases where the learning needs are obvious, many times I feel that Special Education does more long term harm to a student (and the family)than we realize.

Unfortunately, we just have to follow the money. If all the eligible SPED students were truly incorporated into the regular ed through the effective use of Response to Intervention, then what would happen to whole buildings, offices, lawyers and special education programs devoted to justifying their existence by the extensive state and federal money they garner for the district? Perhaps I have a few sour grapes about Special Education...Ya think? Our schools and many students and families have become dependent on the special treatment and the perks of special education (i.e. less accountability and safety behind regulations), but as you pointed out, special ed doesn't exist beyond public schools. The world has little patience with unmotivated people who do not control their behavior, their emotions, or their attention.

Will the day ever arrive in which students will be exited from Special Education because they have overcome or found ways to compensate for their disability? I wouldn't hold my breath...

Great perspective. You definitely are in the minority.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I often find myself in the minority as a Sped Director who fights to not put students in Sped. This should be a last resort and there is no "Sped" after high school. I also see a lot of abuse using the "Sped Umbrella" when many former students try to get the government, our tax dollars, to pay for the now adult's existence. We have got to start insisting that the ills of education are not what we are doing, but we are a mirror of society, not the cause.[/quote]

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