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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

Rusty May's picture
Rusty May
School counselor and creator of SchoolToolsTv.com

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.

Alecia Cobb's picture

I very much agree with you. I am an elementary school principal and I tell my teachers all the times that we can not solve or fix the problems that our children bring to school. But we can do is provide the highest quality learning environment that we can.

We also can not blame them for what their parents are doing or not during. We can show students that we care about them without feeling sorry for them or trying to "fix" them. That is not our role as teachers - refer them to the professionals in the school that can help them. Our goal is to provide the best education possible so that they are equiped to create opportunities for themselves.

Jessica Piper's picture

I totally agree with your article and must say that most of the teachers I work with are in agreement with you as well.

I work in a high-poverty school with some children from awful conditions, yet I think most of them need me to go on with our school day. If they cannot cope with whatever it is that they have at home, then they go to the counselor or another agency that can help. I am not trained to be a social worker; I'm not an expert...I am trained to teach and I think it helps all involved if we get to the heart of the matter behind closed doors and get to learning in the classrooms.

Thanks for your post and you can follow mine for lesson ideas at:

Leilani Thomas's picture
Leilani Thomas
Special Services Director

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.

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