It was the first day of school for the students at a new placement for me. I was going to be teaching ELA to classes of 7th and 8th graders that were ability grouped according to their math scores. My homeroom had the lowest math scores- in the 3rd/4th grade range. The other two classes in my teach were also considered below grade level or non proficient. There was another set of three classes that were at or above (some even at 11th grade) grade level for math.
Right after homeroom where our students were assigned lockers, ate breakfast, and found their seats the entire 7th and 8th grade was called out into the hallway by one of the principals and the grade level dean. They had told us they were going to go over expectations for the middle schoolers as this was a K-8 school.
Perhaps the administrators did discuss hallway behavior and the like, but what I remember, and what I wouldn't be surprised if our students all remember is what happened next. Our principal began yelling, partially to be heard, but partially, it seemed, by her tone, out of anger at our students. She stood in the middle of the hall and pointed to my end and said things like, "You are non-proficient. You are not performing at grade level! You need to work hard so that you can get your scores up so you can move up there!" She pointed to the "proficient" end. Then, she turned her attention to the proficient end and yelled at them, "If you're not careful your scores will drop and you will end up down there with the non-proficient classes! Do you want that?!" And on and on.
I have never been so uncomfortable. My students were so uncomfortable. They looked sad, they looked scared, they looked angry. The excitement of the new school year was gone. Instantly. I was pissed. I was pissed because the administrators weren't telling the whole truth. They were tearing down my kids without telling them that the truth of the matter was that while they struggled in math MANY of them were far above grade level in Reading. I had students who had already scored as college level readers yet they were being told they weren't good enough. And, those kids who were great at math and practically ready for calculus? Some of them were reading at 3rd, 4th, 5th grade reading levels.
Instead of focusing on the fact that every single one of the students had some sort of gift these administrators decided to focus on the negative first. They chose to create a hierarchy, an us v them attitude. And, I chose not to speak up to them. I never told them how I felt about it. I didn't interrupt to spread the truth.
Now, when we got back into my classroom, and throughout the year I tried to do damage control. I explained to my students that yes, many of them needed to work on their math skills but that many of them were great at other things. I told them that the other end of the hall had things to work on too.
I believe in honesty with students. I'm not going to tell someone they've got something mastered if they don't. But I also believe in being compassionate. I believe in giving them a chance to discuss it one on one. The feeling of inferiority my students had for the entire year was a battle I had to fight. It created more apathy than drive.
I should have been their voice. I should have let them see someone fight for them. I don't stand by anymore. What happened that day was wrong. I won't make the same mistake again.
Now, as I teach college I get some of those kids. The ones who have been told they aren't college material, they aren't good enough etc. Some of them truly struggle. But I give them all of my support. I help rewrite the inner dialogue. The words we speak to these students when they're young carry with them for a long time. I know I remember the few times teachers truly hurt me (luckily it was only a few times) and my encounters were not nearly as intense as this one was. We have to be honest with our students but above all we have to be kind. Then, and only then, will we see a higher rate of success and start closing that achievement gap.
Thanks for reading!