My brother Roger is dead now. He was a mason and a builder, but as a young man, he was a thorn in the side of pretty much every one of his teachers. I remember one of my final conversations with him shortly after he learned from his doctor that he would have just one more fall playing golf, one more Christmas with his family. We talked about how in society's view, his life would not have been deemed "successful." The worker whose hands were calloused and raw at the end of the day had somehow not measured up. As an educator with a career spanning nearly 40 years, I finally got it.
Even as a young kid, Roger had extraordinary gifts as a builder, yet not one teacher recognized and celebrated his talents. His high school in a relatively wealthy Boston suburb prided itself on its Ivy League college acceptance rate and its number of National Merit finalists. There, Roger spent most of his school days desperately trying not to be invisible, acting as a class clown to hide his reading difficulties and to get noticed.
I recently spoke with a mother whose son had committed suicide after being suspended from school on the day of the first prom he would have ever attended. Ben, she explained, had learning challenges and few social skills. He was at the bottom of the social hierarchy of a school in which scholars and athletes were held up as the exemplars. She didn't blame the school for Ben's death, but it was obvious to me that Ben had become invisible there because he didn't fit the model of the "successful" student.
In a time when the focus of education is on high test scores and college acceptance, Roger and Ben have something to teach us about the culture of schools. We must change the culture and give the invisible kids a chance to shine.
Parents want their kids to get a piece of what they consider the American dream, and who can blame them? But what are we creating? Kids end up going to college only to discover they have no idea what they want to do with the college education. Young adults who don't complete college—and many who do—drift from job to job searching for work that brings them some level of enjoyment. Too late, they learn that happiness doesn't come from making a lot of money; rather, happiness comes from building lives of meaning and purpose. What role might educators play in helping them find those satisfying lives?
The world needs scientists, inventors, builders, plumbers, mechanics, lawyers, politicians, salespeople, artists, and so much more. It's important for schools to treat all these pursuits as valuable. We might still talk about going to college, but we should frame that discussion differently. For example, we could say, "There are many ways to develop your gifts; you may attend a traditional four-year college or a technical institute. The most important task before you is to find what brings you joy and satisfaction and how you can use that passion to contribute to society."
From the time students enter school, we must help them identify their unique gifts, talents, and passions. Some kids come to school without any idea what they are capable of doing, but great teachers can help them discover in themselves talents that they never saw before. Our job is to guide students in finding connections among their strengths, their interests, and the needs of the world.
We need only look at the bored, indifferent faces of too many students in our classrooms to know that they simply aren't buying what we're selling. The more they see the relevance of each subject, the more they will invest in what we're teaching. Students need to hear the message that there are many ways to be successful and that doing well in school will give them the skills and insights to find the work that suits them best.
Share Your Stories
Parker Palmer writes eloquently about the need for educators not to hide our identities and "lob factoids at [students] from behind a wall."1
It's only when kids recognize our integrity that they will feel secure enough to invest in a relationship with us.
As a principal, I've used some of my own life stories to come out from "behind the wall." I've told students about the day I overpermed my hair and had to walk down the school corridors with a huge fuzz-ball head. I connected that story with the "bad hair" days students all have at some time or another, the days when they fail, get dumped, or face challenges. I've spoken about my fear of trying out for the school play and implored student to face their own fears.
When a disruptive student was sent to my office, I would tell that student about my brother and say, "I refuse to let you be the class clown. You will not waste your talents and throw away what you have to offer the world." One 8th grader wrote this note to me upon my retirement:
If I did get in trouble, you would be there to tell me: Don't be that kid, that dufus, class clown … and you know that means a lot more than a phone call home or a detention. Your words meant something to me.
One of the teachers at my school found a way to talk about growing up in a family with an alcoholic parent. She shared the shame she felt and told students how she worked through it. Several students who felt alone and ashamed also came forward to share their stories.
Another teacher told his students about how he struggled with a learning disability and eventually came to realize that he wasn't stupid but just learned differently. The bonds he created were impressive; students with similar concerns no longer felt invisible.
Our students will invest emotionally in us and hear what we have to tell them when they know how we have struggled and failed. Many students who act out are secretly screaming for attention and validation. They need to hear our true voices, not those coming from behind a wall, to know that they aren't alone.
Connect with All Students
Students who don't feel connected to school often present the most discipline problems. Like Roger and Ben, these students come from the ranks of those who feel incompetent, who learn differently, and who are not interested in traditional academics.
Schools can build connections with these students by giving them an opportunity to succeed at something they enjoy. At the middle school where I was principal, a teacher who had a passion for carpentry offered to work with interested students during our activity period. Mostly boys and a few girls raced to his room every day to build a shed, picnic tables, and bird houses. These students happened to be among our students with the most challenging behaviors. Our discipline problems plummeted as students found joy and success in their work.
We encouraged our students to investigate the local vocational high school as a way to develop their talents. In the past, attending the "voc" school was not cool, but we turned that attitude around and celebrated with our 8th graders when they received acceptance letters to the school. At a school assembly, those students were called up on stage in front of the entire student body, and everyone cheered for them. One boy said, "Wow! That was the first time I was ever called up on stage for anything. It felt good."
We also didn't neglect our skateboarders. Although these students practice as diligently as football players, they rarely have cheering fans or earn trophies. To recognize their dedication and skill, we started holding a small skateboard competition with students serving as judges. To be eligible, competitors had to demonstrate good behavior and complete their homework. At our traditional annual awards ceremony, the winners were called up on stage to receive trophies, and I remarked on their perseverance, hard work, and sportsmanship.
One of our most significant additions to our extracurricular program was an after-school Lego club that our school psychologist began. Every Friday afternoon, 25 to 50 students flocked to the cafeteria to design and build complex creations. Many of the club members had previously stayed on the sidelines in group activities; the club got them to interact with fellow students as they compared structures and shared materials. They no longer felt invisible or alone.
Making Room for Everyone
Although it is certainly important for many students to follow a traditional route to college, we must also remember the Rogers and Bens of the world. By changing the definition of what it means to be successful, we can help them discover their innate gifts. By sharing our stories, we help them develop insight into their own problems and show them they are not alone. By giving them opportunities to display their talents, we help them feel more connected to school and the community.
We must never let any child be invisible; the costs are too great. If Roger and Ben were here today, they would agree.
Author's note: To learn more about Ben's story, visit Ben Speaks, a nonprofit suicide awareness organization.
Palmer, P. (2004). A hidden wholeness: The journey toward an undivided life. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, p. 17.
Anne K. Bergen is a retired educator who has served as a teacher, reading specialist, and principal in Franklin, Massachusetts. She is the creator and host of the local cable television program It Takes a Village: Raising Resilient Kids in Today's World.
Click on keywords to see similar products: