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Tuesday / November 21

The Starfish on the Beach: Helping Your Reluctant Learners

I’m writing this aboard another plane heading to another spot away from home. As much as I am not enamored with time in planes, airports, and hotel rooms, I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to work with, and learn from, so many talented and gifted educators. That I get invited to your workplaces, to your conversations, and to your challenges is a real honor.

Just as I think I did some of my best teaching with my most reluctant learners, I find that working with colleagues as they deal with their reluctant learners is the most satisfying. The dynamic has taken on greater importance as the options available to students who don’t experience success are getting slimmer and slimmer. Recent statistics indicate that a high school dropout is not eligible for 90% of the jobs in today’s workforce. When you couple that with the statistic that says the 50 largest cities in the United States had a graduation rate less than 60%, the challenges mount. Where once, rightly or wrongly, a person could leave school and find “living wage” work, those days are gone. In fact, many currently employed folks struggle to get by on the wage they earn. High school plus further training is the minimum requirement for many jobs today.

What, then, can we do for those kids who struggle – the kids who take up most of our time but seem to generate little success? These are the kids who periodically cross our minds when we think if I didn’t have them in my class, I could offer the others so much more and could yield better results. But here’s the catch – I just don’t know with any certainty which of those kids can be turned around because an adult invested in them. I do know this. Left unchecked and in the absence of any intervention by caring and compassionate adults, I can easily predict the options available to those kids. And so can you. As Ron Edmonds noted in 1979,

“We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us; we already know more than we need to do that; whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.”

Perhaps the sense of urgency wasn’t as profound in that time, and society on the whole was able to absorb low graduation rates with significant employment in manufacturing and agricultural sectors. This new urgency compels us to go further, do more, and push through our frustrations to minimize theirs and set them on a path to making a less bumpy transition to work or further training.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with the story of the starfish on the beach. While we may not be able to save them all, start with one. It would be so easy if they were clearly labeled. In the absence of that, begin with the first one you see whether it’s starfish on the beach or kids in your school.

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Tom Hierck’s experiences as a teacher, administrator, district leader, department of education project leader, and executive director have provided a unique context for his education philosophy. Hierck is a compelling presenter, infusing his message of hope with strategies culled from the real world. His dynamic presentations explore the importance of positive learning environments and the role of assessment to improve student learning. He is the co-author of RTI Is a Verb. Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Hierck today!

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