During the forty years that I was an educator, I had the privilege of working with thousands of individuals who as teachers, administrators, and members of support staffs were committed to the most important goal of helping each child and young adult grow, learn, and thrive. That was true in the early 1970s when I began my career and is equally true today. Having spent the last several years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln working with student teachers, I continued to be impressed and heartened by the degree of dedication to the mission that those new to the profession demonstrate.
I had the good fortune to prepare to teach under the guidance of several outstanding mentors. They helped me develop a drive to do all I could to help each of my students succeed. My preparation to provide sound instruction to students was excellent. I learned quickly, however, that I needed to continue to learn about the unique needs of some of my students. In my first teaching assignment I encountered a young person who was hearing impaired. I had no experience that enabled me to know what I needed to do differently for that student. Soon thereafter, two students from Africa were added to my classes. Again, I had no experiences that helped me provide the extra support they needed.
My principal, another one of my mentors, recognized the need to help me and others on the staff by providing some professional development activities that expanded our knowledge and provided strategies we could implement to support these students. These are but two examples of the kind of responsiveness to the needs of teachers that occurred. When an issue was identified, it was immediately addressed. The district’s policies, set by the Board of Education, allowed school administrators, faculty, and staff to find and use resources to better meet the needs of individual students. In fact, the policies expected school faculties to initiate action.
When I was selected to be a junior high school principal, my first superintendent, John Prasch, helped me understand that my most important responsibility was to do all I could to help each student succeed. He told principals that we needed to do everything we could “to keep students from being hurt.” John saw that expectation in the broad context that went beyond physical injury. He included social, psychological, emotional, and intellectual well-being.
When the need of a student or a group of students arose, school faculties were expected to address it. The welfare of students was paramount. The teachers and staff members with whom I worked embraced that. While it is now many years ago, I remember vividly when a fine teacher shared his frustration about a student who continually failed tests. He and I soon realized that the ninth-grade student was dealing unsuccessfully with a form of dyslexia. That condition, which can cause difficulties in learning for individuals, was not new. However, we had not before actually observed a student struggle with getting letters in the right order to spell words accurately. Neither did we know what to do to help the Vietnamese students whose families had sought refuge in the United States. We also needed strategies as we strived to get some of our Native American students to build on their academic success in elementary school.
Having identified the needs to be addressed, we were able to get information and ideas that positively contributed to our efforts to support individuals. It was important to us that we could call on various resources to get help. It was even more important to the students who benefited from the training that staff received.
In my experience, circumstances that required additional training and knowledge increasingly surfaced. Some of the situations were tied to specific events, like dealing with the tragedy of September 11 and its aftermath. The protest by our students over the Rodney King decision created the need for a different kind of staff training and communication. Events like those required an immediate response. Our district’s policies provided for that.
In other cases, resources and responses could be thoughtfully developed and delivered through planned staff development activities. One example would be learning about how to support students who were identified with one of various special needs tied to specific learning difficulties. It challenged us to work appropriately and successfully with a student new to us that previously was enrolled in a school for the educable mentally handicapped. Being sensitive to students of different ethnic backgrounds and to those who had different religious beliefs and practices is another example. We also needed to learn about ways to provide support as students and staff members grieved the death of a family member or friend. Finding ways to help the victims of abuse required guidance from various resources. We learned about moral development to be better able to assist students who struggled with that.
Over time, the staffs with which I was associated addressed suicide prevention, culturally sensitive communication, and issues related to severe poverty, sexual identification, divorce, academic failure, and the need for tolerance of differences. In some cases, the staff development was offered district wide. Most of the time, however, someone on our own staff initiated the identification of an issue to be addressed. All of these issues, and many others, come together in today’s schools. They must be addressed there.
To be clear, sound partnerships with parents can contribute positively to the work that goes on in a school. There were a number of occasions when parents appropriately helped us understand an issue for their student, whether that was academic in nature or tied more to a social/emotional need. We learned a lot by working with parents. That work, though, almost always focused on that parent’s child. It was left to the staff to determine how best to address legitimate concerns in the context of the entire school.
For example, when a parent asked, because of their belief system, that we be sensitive around a particular holiday, the faculty accommodated the request for that student to the best of its ability. At times, teachers would provide an alternative reading for a student at the request of a parent. Health teachers very willingly provided alternative activities when a parent asked that their student be excused from sex education instruction. These kinds of adjustments were made for individual students. They were done sensitively so as not to call attention to the student. While the accommodations occurred, the need to address the issues school wide were not diminished. Faculty members moved forward to act on what they knew, and they learned to provide support to the general school population.
Staff members never ceased learning about ways they could better meet the needs of some of their students. In most cases they embraced those opportunities. That kind of response is consistent with the dedication teachers have to helping each student maximize their potential. Now, as much as ever, it is critical that educators continue to learn.
Today, the challenges of meeting the needs of students in prekindergarten programs through high school continue to increase in number and scope. It must be left to educators, within the boundaries of school district policies, to determine what additional information they need to address events, circumstances, and issues as they arise. A school’s faculty must have the authority to develop its plan so that action can be taken in a timely way. It is the responsibility of educators to respond to student needs in ways that are well conceived and based on best practice and accurate information, not on avoidance techniques or popular pressure. That plan needs to focus on what will best benefit all students. In my experience, the vast majority of parents expected our staff to make the right decisions and appreciated that we were proactive in our efforts. Almost all parents understood that their students were in a school setting that, due to diversity of many forms, enriched their children’s experiences.
Parents, on a daily basis, entrust their children to those in schools who willingly assume the responsibility to help each student grow, learn, and thrive. In doing so, parents have very high expectations for their children’s schools. That is as it should be. Teachers, support staff members, and administrators serve all students. They need the support of their school boards and the general public in their work to help each student succeed.