I vividly remember this kid in my office, seated next to his mother. I'll call him Demetrius. He was there because he had jumped another boy in the locker room. I was in the process of assigning him several days of in-school suspension, and I wanted his mother to be aware of what we were dealing with. At one point in the meeting, Demetrius started to explain himself to me. He had barely opened his mouth long enough to get out two words when his mother popped him in the face with her hand. She didn't even appear to look at him. It happened so fast, it startled both of us. I don't recall much of a reaction from Demetrius, other than being startled and a bit embarrassed. (I think the physical pain from the slap was minor compared with his humiliation.) He continued looking forward the entire time. This happened many years ago. It was my sense that this was not an unusual occurrence. As Demetrius and I were walking down the sidewalk to ISS, I remember saying to him something like, "I'm sorry that happened, Demetrius. Nobody should have to deal with that." And I remember thinking to myself, "This guy doesn't have a chance. No wonder he's slapping other kids in the locker room. Violence is what he knows."
Many teachers have had the experience of scheduling a parent conference to discuss the failure of a student completing homework, only to have the parent not show up for the conference. I have called home to discuss a child's disrespectful attitude, only to have the parent berate me on the telephone. Make no mistake about it: students are products of their environment.
It is nice to think about students coming to school with a "blank slate," and it is nice to imagine that education is the process where teachers get to write on that clean slate with everything children need to be productive citizens. It is a rewarding profession, when teachers mold the lives of young students and get to paint a beautiful picture on the canvas of their lives. But here's the thing: the kids never come with a blank slate, and teachers are not the only ones painting on the canvas. Much has been written about the advantages enjoyed by kindergartners who had parents read to them in the first 5 years of their lives. The advantages of these kids extend beyond vocabulary acquisition, and they certainly do not stop at kindergarten. Likewise, the challenges that confront students who do not come from a supportive home environment remain with them throughout their schooling career. Some students come into our classes with values and habits already instilled in them that are counterproductive to those we are trying to instill in our classrooms. And, when they go home each day, they are often receiving messages that undermine what we are trying to accomplish in the classroom.
So what does this mean for educators? It does not mean that we lower our standards, and it does not mean that we whine about lack of parental support. It does mean that we remain aware of the challenges that some of our students are having to overcome. It does mean that we have to provide additional support, instruction, and even coaching in areas that might extend beyond traditional curricular standards. And it certainly means that we practice empathy -- that we extend grace and compassion to every one of our students.
The next time you are frustrated with a student in your class, think about what that kid's canvas looked like before they came to you... and think about who might be writing on it after the bell rings. After all, we don't always know what our students came from... or what they're going home to.