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Strengthening the Weakest Link

Bronx Classroom Tales

Strengthening the Weakest LinkI recently watched a feature on PBS which followed two principals over the course of a year. I was struck by a question that one of principals asked her teachers, something along the lines of, “write down the name of your weakest student and what she or he specifically needs to work on to get back on track.”  


Most of the teachers on camera quickly got to writing on their pads, but in the back left corner of the screen a younger looking, yet still cardigan-donned teacher looked frozen like she just crashed her smart car into a puppy playground; her eyes, even out of focus, were full of guilt and fear and shame. Or maybe they were my eyes reflecting off the screen. I immediately identified with this background pedagogue, because shamefully, I too could not name my weakest student. On the other hand, I know well the middle name of my strongest student (mainly because she insists on writing out her full name on everything).


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It is easy for students who don’t make much noise literally or academically to get lost in the grade book. 


With two weeks to go before sending out first quarter report cards, I still can’t say for certain who is passing and who I will be filling out extra paperwork on. In an effort to hold teachers more accountable for failing students, we must make a list of five interventions we offered a student before they fail a class and turn it into administration. I support the policy although I’m guilty of photocopying the same list of interventions and writing in students’ names on top avoiding writing out the same list twenty times. Twenty?! That’s right. I probably fail twenty students each term (about twenty percent of my total students). Maybe this is why I have a hard time naming the weakest. He or she stands in a healthy company. 


In my short history of teaching, I’ve only known one teacher to have a pass rate over 90% and he did little more than take attendance to determine grades. Most of us deal with heavy absenteeism and heavier apathy toward education. 


I recently overheard one of my students (one of the twenty as well as one of my students returning for a second year of sophomore English) in the dean of discipline’s office say, “I don’t care about me, so why I’m gonna care about any of you or this school.” 


Too often we teachers throw up are hands saying, “I can’t teach if they don’t want to learn.” I understand the sentiment. I do. But part of the job, particularly where I work, is not giving up on students who have already given up on themselves. It is frustrating but tenacity and endurance can pay off. I was able to get a memoir from this student last week, something he refused to do all last year. Progress.


It’s not responsible to focus all our energy on the bottom third, fourth or fifth of our student populations in order to bring up pass rates. Nor is it responsible to forget them and chalk it up to a lack of their own motivation. 


I’m combing my grade book tonight and printing off progress reports to hand out tomorrow morning. The make-up quiz sessions will be offered again this Tuesday and Thursday at lunch and I’ll call the homes of any failing student later this week. Hopefully, besides finding a home on my Xeroxed intervention lists, one of these things will make a difference for one of my students. 

How do reach out to your struggling students? Share in the comments section!