George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Most Important Need: The Need to Learn

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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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.

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Susan Riley's picture
Susan Riley
Arts Integration Specialist

I think you're right on in this case. We should acknowledge that the children we serve all come from different backgrounds and homes, but it cannot be our job to fix that. We are charged with teaching our students as much as we can in innovative ways that give them a reason to learn. That's why I'm such a big proponent of arts integration ( because it creates a spark when there may not be one otherwise. I agreed when the President told us all that parents need to step up and take the first responsibility in education. It needed to be said - schools can't fix everything. But there is a very distinct line between acknowledging where a student is coming from and spending our resources in trying to "fix" a problem that has nothing to do with what a child is learning in school.

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


Thanks for the added dimension. You used the perfect word for the purpose of teachers knowing the demographic background and somewhat of the students' lives--ACKNOWLEDGMENT. The teacher uses what student information is contextually relevant to differentiate and better inspire student learning, and then honors the reason why the student came to school in the first place. Give them a successful learning experience.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]I think you're right on in this case. We should acknowledge that the children we serve all come from different backgrounds and homes, but it cannot be our job to fix that. We are charged with teaching our students as much as we can in innovative ways that give them a reason to learn. That's why I'm such a big proponent of arts integration ( because it creates a spark when there may not be one otherwise. I agreed when the President told us all that parents need to step up and take the first responsibility in education. It needed to be said - schools can't fix everything. But there is a very distinct line between acknowledging where a student is coming from and spending our resources in trying to "fix" a problem that has nothing to do with what a child is learning in school.[/quote]

Keith's picture
Ninth Grade Science Teacher

Having worked in community youth programs for the past ten years and teaching for the past two years I can understand the two viewpoints in response to this article.

First, I support Mr. Johnson's statements and believe this is a great reminder for a begining teacher like myself. Sometimes I find myself more concerned and focused on helping the struggling student build self-worth and self-efficacy then providing an high level learning opportunites that will cause a need and want for the student to learn the content.

I will also reply that I could also disagree with Johnson's statements as the first motivation in life, according to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, is providing for one's physical needs, followed by the need for safety, the need for being loved, the need for self esteem and finally the need for development met through achievement. This would place the desire to learn near the bottom if other survival needs are not being met in the student's life.

So where does this leave us as educators. With the growing lack of parental support from home, teachers are now expected to wear more hats then ever. Teach content, provide moral parameters, teach self-responsibility, hard work, etc....many of these values were expressed and taught within the home in the years past. The answer to most challenges lie between the two extremes.

I realize that as educators we can not meet all the needs of the students. We need to focus on helping each student see the opportunity learning brings to them to meet the foundational needs of one's life. We can acknowledge these needs, but more importantly empower each student to grasp the understanding that learning is the gateway into a better life not only for them but their family and those they care for.

Daryl T.'s picture

I also work in a very poor school district. It is unbelievable what some of these children go through. I believe that the best thing I can do for my students is to give them a safe place to come to everyday, where they feel important, valued and loved. If they do not have a least some of these feelings, good luck trying to teach them.

Robert Mathison's picture

Your article is thought provoking. I am a substitute teacher waiting for my first year as a full time teaching. From my viewpoint, I can see where teachers have to wear both hats, a teacher and counselor. There is really no way around it. I try to get to know the students from all perspectives to find the best way to teach them.
I will never close my eyes to problems a students has at home or elsewhere. I am not a counselor but do have open ears. My class is a safe place they can come into when their world is a mess. I am only a starting point to get them help.
From this dialogue, I am able to teach them better since I am more aware of their hardships and will adjust me techniques to include them in the learning environment. I expect all my students to be able to perform to the best of their ability. If they need an extra push or nudging over a roadblock, I am there to help them. But first I have to know and understand the problem before they will be willing to learn.

Brian Luciani's picture

As educators, we MUST consider students' needs because those needs, although not always about learning, directly affect how students learn. The child with whom you've built a fabulous relationship with will rise to any challenge you give them. It is our duty to help children forget about their home lives during school hours and to show them love and compassion so that they will fall in love with learning. When you connect the dots, that is, the effect positive student-teacher relationships have on student achievement, you cannot ignore the circumstances from which children come.

Tabitha's picture
6th grade English teacher

I have to agree with Dave. You also need a social worker who does not enable those challenges for our students!

Abby's picture

I am a preschool teacher at a Head Start, and have to admit that when I read your blog, I disagreed with some of the things you wrote. The students in my class all come from low income families, and at school, we are often the providers of many of their basic needs. My students come into school on Monday morning exhausted and with empty stomachs. They are initially looking for food and a safe place where they are loved and cared for, which is not always something they receive at home. It is my responsibility then to provide them with these needs before I can ever begin to think about teaching them and helping them learn. While some may think, "It's only preschool", my students are learning so much everyday, and to be honest they amaze me at what they are capable of. I do agree with you that teachers do need to focus on ensuring that their students learn, but caring for them and understanding their situation at home is also of importance if one wishes to reach their students.

Barb Harte's picture

I have another way of looking at this. I am blessed to teach in an affluent school district where 95% of the students go on to college. There are those in dangerous situations - as abuse does not recognize socio-economic lines, neither does divorce, alcoholism, drug abuse and so on and so on. But I want to remark on an even more pervasive crutch that we as teachers and just about everyone in society has given permission for. We have this understanding about kids when they approach adolescence that says: "they are going through huge hormonal changes and so their behavior will reflect that." This is translated as permission for students to behave badly and often for teachers to concentrate (in particular in middle school) on social issues. That is, in my opinion, a huge mistake. I have taught for 28 years at both the middle and high school levels AND raised two girls (yes - evil adolescent girls) who were never given permission to be obnoxious because they were adolescent girls. I also never entertain that behavior in my classroom. Some how - for decades - teens managed to change hormonally and NOT fight, swear, slam doors, and behave like two year old throwing a temper tantrum, without consequences. We now seem to excuse this type of behavior as NORMAL and just try to live through it. It is again a focus on something other than what is supposed to be happening in the classroom - learning. We wonder why bullying is at such an all time high? Years of telling kids in words and actions that it is ok to behave that way, that there are no consequences to that behavior, has created a situation that forces schools to take on more and more social responsibilities. What school do you know of today that doesn't have a "Character Education" program? If we really want kids to focus on learning - WE need to focus on learning as well. A great teacher I worked with years ago once told me: "Kids can learn lots of different sets of rules. Just because the parents don't have boundaries for their children doesn't mean the school has to follow suit. Establish the walls against which students will push (that is their job to find and push against boundaries) and make sure your walls aren't made of jello. The students will learn how far they can go and you can concentrate on teaching and learning." That is some of the best advice I've ever gotten...and it was from an LRC teacher who worked with some pretty tough kids.

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


Thanks for the support. Sometimes I feel that I am fighting this battle alone. If teachers would just do a fabulous job of teaching, then the students would want to come to school, they would want to improve their skills, they would be able to see a way to live a better life, and they would be more resilient against all of the "bad" that happens at home. I am sure you and your colleagues are making headway with your students by teaching them to learn. Keep up the good work.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

[quote]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:[/quote]

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