We must believe all students can learn.

Several years ago, I shared a fantastic student success story.  The story was the direct result of caring and talented Butler Tech faculty who, despite the student’s life circumstances, believed she could succeed. My sole intent of sharing the story was to celebrate the good work of some of our faculty.  It reconfirmed a belief I’ve had since entering the classroom as a teacher…all students can learn, and school personnel can overcome incredible challenges to make it so.

Oddly the celebration of faculty and staff success created negative feedback in the form of an anonymous letter that among other statements identified the belief that all students can learn as “bureacratic BS”.  The following was my open letter response to the fantastic Butler Tech team. 

First, I have always believed that all students can learn with proper instruction.  I’m not naïve enough to believe we have solved all the educational problems we face.  Nor do I think my belief means we will always succeed with each student we serve.  But it does mean that, as a teacher, I refused to blame students or their circumstances for their educational failure in my classroom.  I took full responsibility for creating the conditions necessary to reach every student.  When I didn’t, I analyzed what went wrong and went about finding new ways to reach my students.  For my efforts, I earned the Ohio Outstanding Agricultural Education Teacher of the Year…an award based primarily on student performance.  More importantly, I watched many students flourish who had been written off by other educators as slow learners, problem students, losers, or worse.  One even ended up teaching!  In other words, my personal belief that all students can learn didn’t start with my tenure as an administrator…er “bureacrat”..., it was why I entered the education profession. 

Second, history has proven that many more students could learn at high levels than the “professionals” of the day thought possible.  Consider the following:

  1. At the turn of the 20th century, women were considered inferior intellectually by the educators of their time.  Women were not allowed to vote because they were supposedly incapable of understanding the complexity of political decisions.  It wasn’t until 1920 that women in the United States could vote.  What a tragedy it would have been if people hadn’t started believing that women could learn with proper access to education.  What if no one would have believed?

  2. It took until the 1960’s for African Americans to gain full access to voting (1965 Voting Act) and educational opportunities (Brown v Board of Education, 1951).  A core reason for this was a fundamental belief that African-American populations were not capable of learning at the same level as whites.  What a tragedy this belief inflicted upon generations of intelligent, hardworking individuals.

  3. It took even longer for our educational institutions to recognize the learning capabilities of students with disabilities.  I recall individuals from my youth with Down Syndrome, dyslexia, and other disabilities being institutionalized because the common belief was “they couldn’t learn.”  We have much more work to do to solve all the challenges of learning disabilities but look at the incredible gains we have made in the last 20 years…once we believed students with disabilities could learn.

Third, let’s consider the great movies about educators.   The following are some of the best examples.  They all portray teachers who didn’t accept their lessor colleagues’ assumptions about their students and believed they could learn at high levels. (The narratives after the movies come from “Top 10 Top Inspirational Movies for Educators “By Melissa Kelly, About.com)

 

  1. Stand and Deliver  The classic teacher movie whose message is very important today: never believe that students are unable to learn. Instead of teaching to the lowest common denominator, Edward James Olmos in a true story as Jaime Escalante sets his sights much higher, getting them to pass the AP Calculus exam. Excellent, enjoyable choice.

  2. Dangerous Minds  Michelle Pfeiffer is excellent as real-life former marine Louanne Johnson. Teaching English in a tough inner-city school, she reaches the "unteachable" through caring and understanding. Very true-to-life, Dangerous Minds does not fall into sentimentality but instead teaches us of the importance of making our own choices and not allowing circumstances to rule us.

  3. Lean on Me  Morgan Freeman plays Joe Clark, the real-life bat-wielding Principal whose goal was to bring discipline and learning to Eastside High School in New York. While he was not always the easiest on the teachers, it would sure be nice if more Principals stressed the importance of discipline and learning in their schools as he did. This film shows the importance of having strong leadership at the top.

  4. The Miracle Worker  The ultimate teaching miracle, Anne Bancroft is awesome as Annie Sullivan who uses 'tough love' to get through to the deaf and blind Helen Keller played by Patty Duke. Very few people can watch the famous 'water' scene without experiencing a feeling of triumph and relief. Excellent portrayal of the importance of perseverance. Both Bancroft and Duke won an Academy Award for their performances.

  5. Music of the Heart This film shows the influence that one person's drive and vision can have on others. Meryl Streep plays real-life Roberta Guaspari who moves to Harlem as a single-mother and becomes a violin teacher. Working through racial and other barriers, Roberta creates an acclaimed music program in an area where many would have said it was impossible. Definitely a heart-warming movie.

 

Every great movie about educators is based on teachers who believed their students could learn, even when others had given up on them.

Fourth, let’s consider the research.  According to High Schools That Work and Model Schools data, faculty belief that all students can learn and their belief that classroom instruction can overcome all life circumstances is highly correlated with high student performance.  The famous experiment about the impact believing has on performance, the Hawthorne Experiment (yes, the origin of the Hawthorne Effect) proved the incredible positive impact believing has on performance of all types.  The 90-90-90 schools study showed that incredible poverty, racism, broken homes, violence, and drug problems can be overcome by schools that believe it is their responsibility to change students’ lives, not just hope for better students. 

Finally, I want to quote one of our own custodians who said in rebuttal to the anonymous letter “I would hope that if a physician would fail they would evaluate the circumstance, try to determine where improvement can be made, and then take the responsibility to make those improvements. If a physician would fail and not attempt to evaluate to understand the failure, or to blame the patient for the failure, then I agree that they should look for a new profession before they fail again.”  Charles Spicer captured the very essence of why we must believe in all students and believe we have a responsibility to accept every failure as our opportunity to learn and change practice.  He captures the importance of seeing our profession from the students’ point of view, not our own.  Students figure out with ease who the teachers are that believe in them and those that have written them off.  They act accordingly. 

The bottom line: All Butler Tech employees (this includes all of us, custodians, secretaries, technicians, faculty, administrators, and board members) have the incredible privilege to shape students’ lives.  We also have the uncompromising responsibility to own each student’s success or failure and to make the necessary changes to avoid failure in the future.  We are not perfect, but that cannot deter our desire to seek perfection.

We must believe that all students can learn and that we can make it possible regardless of the student’s life circumstances.  I respect diversity of thought regarding instructional methodology, processes, and approaches to the complex work we do, but I will not respect employees who don’t believe all students can learn.  If you can’t find it in your heart to believe that all students can learn, please find another profession within which to work.

Robert Sommers