Author: Dr. Jenny Lott Van Buren
After 10 years of teaching a wide variety of high school mathematics students in Clay County, Florida, my husband took a new job and moved our family to South Carolina. I took a position at a high school in Anderson County, and I was assigned an entire class of repeating 9th graders for Algebra 1. Almost immediately, I knew that this was an opportunity to engage in practitioner research and improve myself as a teacher as part of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida. In the end, teaching repeating students while also critically reflecting about my own practice taught me more about creating an equitable learning environment and increasing student engagement than any of my prior teaching experiences. While this learning is particularly applicable to teaching repeating and remedial students, many concepts can be applied to other learners as well. Here are the top five tips I believe all educators should know about the culture of repeating students:
1. Challenge the existing underlying assumptions regarding students who have a history of low performance.
In my experience, knowing that my students had previously been unsuccessful, I regret to say that my mind would sometimes blame students for their lack of engagement in discussions or unwillingness to complete assignments. I was wrong. Lack of engagement did not mean that my students did not care or want to be successful. Let’s be honest; it is ridiculous to actually think a person desires to be unsuccessful. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I want to fail.” As it turned out, my students wanted to be successful, but they did not feel confident. Due to their prior educational experiences and backgrounds as repeating students, they did not trust me or their peers enough to share their thinking. Recognizing this barrier between my students and me allowed me to think and work to overcome it by building better relationships.
The first step in increasing equity for students is recognizing that beliefs about people (including biases and prejudices – intended or not) inform how educators manage schools and classrooms as well as how they relate to other people. Consider the opportunity gaps in education (ways in which race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, and/or other factors have perpetuated lower educational achievement for particular students). Understand that racism, classism, or other forms of discrimination may impact students’ perceptions about their own identities and abilities in negative ways.
Once you recognize inequities, do the hard work of challenging it, whether it is intended or unintended. Challenge yourself to think deeply about and work to change your own biases and perceptions that may have negative impacts on students. Challenge other teachers and leaders at your school and in your district to work to close opportunity gaps that exist for students. Challenge deficit thinking and negative attitudes about students. Take responsibility. Do something and make needed changes in order to increase equity.
2. Keep academic and behavioral expectations high!
It is unfortunate that repeating students are typically grouped together and placed in low-level courses. This trend sets repeating students up for further disengagement and shallow levels of understanding since typical low level courses lack critical components of content and are usually taught by the most inexperienced teachers. In general, we fail to consider that some students perform well but lack deep understanding, while other students understand deeply but perform poorly. In my experiences working with repeating students, intellect was NOT the main problem. Differences in student achievement are NOT a natural consequence of differences in student ability. Many times, students achieve at low levels because they have not been held to high expectations. Since most repeaters, despite popular belief, are smart and capable of success, we educators need to do a better job of keeping expectations high.
When scheduling students, ensure that repeating students are placed with a caring, dynamic, engaging teacher and with encouraging peers. Don’t let teachers give up or think that they have been demoted for being assigned repeating students. Rather, encourage teachers of repeating students. Choose these teachers because they are rock star teachers. Tell them that they are rock star teachers. Provide quality professional development to assist teachers in reaching all students. Make sure that teachers hold all students accountable and have high expectations for both academics and behavior. Model the mindset that failure is an opportunity to learn, not a reason to give up. DON’T GIVE UP, and don’t let other teachers or students give up either.
3. Intentionally give repeating students a voice, and praise them for sharing their thinking.
During my research experience teaching repeating 9th graders Algebra 1, I became increasingly aware of how my students did not openly talk about their thinking. Not only were there few discussions between peers about mathematical ideas, I noticed that my students did not openly share ideas in whole-group discussions. In fact, in some instances, students would not even write down their own ideas until I confirmed the correct answer for them. Trust was lacking throughout my classroom. My students did not want to look stupid, so they did not speak.
In response to this phenomenon, I needed to be intentional about my practice in getting them to talk about their thinking and take risks. I needed to be sensitive to students’ lack of confidence. So, I designed activities that progressed from simple to complex thinking to provide positive first encounters with content, and I asked more open ended questions in which there were multiple right answers. I had whispering conversations in which I praised student thinking and elicited deeper thinking, and I also praised students openly and loudly in front of the class. These strategies, slowly but completely, changed the dynamic of my classroom.
4. Make attendance a priority.
One of my biggest frustrations when I taught repeating students was their attendance. How could I teach, engage, and build relationships with them if they were not in class? So, I made it a priority. After taking the roll each class, I picked up the phone and called parents. Other students were in the room and working on a warm-up assignment. They heard every word of me talking about how much I missed seeing students in class and how to access missed content. When parents didn’t answer, I left messages. Then, I picked up the phone again and called students’ cell phones. Even when students were in ISS for minor offenses, I called and asked permission for them to come to class anyway.
So maybe you don’t call every student that is absent every single day. Whatever you do, make sure that students know that you notice and care when they miss class. Students need to know that teachers want them in class. When they are absent, make efforts to get them back. Make attendance a priority.
5. Support the whole child.
Last but not least, consider all factors that contribute to the development and success of students. In addition to academic and learning challenges, consider other challenges students face daily. How are students supported in maintaining a healthy lifestyle? Do your students feel physically and emotionally safe? How can you connect students and families to community resources, and how can you promote the development of needed community resources? Use the ASCD School Improvement Tool to determine your school and district needs. Learn how to better support the whole child and meet the needs of your students. Then, get to work. Help your school, district, and community start the discussion and take action to better support students in every way.
About Dr. Jenny Lott Van Buren:
Dr. Jenny Lott Van Buren is currently a South Carolina ASCD Emerging Leader and teaches mathematics at Powdersville High School in Anderson School District One. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of New Orleans in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2006 with her Bachelor’s of Science in Secondary Mathematics Education with university honors and honors in her major. She earned her Master’s degree in Educational Leadership from the University of North Florida in 2010. She earned her Doctorate of Education in Curriculum, Teaching, and Teacher Education from the University of Florida in 2017. Connect with Dr. Van Buren on Twitter @vanburenEdD.