Only Six Hours

   After I finished college and my student teaching, which consisted of eight weeks in a fourth grade classroom and eight weeks in a self-contained ED classroom, I thought what I was best prepared for was regular ed. elementary. What I ended up in, and remained in for the past twenty years, is high school Special Ed. Like all new teachers, I was enthusiastic and knew that I alone could change the lives of so many students. It took me about three years to realize that no matter how much I manipulated their schedules, got them the best classes with the most talented teachers, a study hall with me to ensure they completed their work, set them up for a plan that would have them graduating in four years, invariably I had some kids who sabotaged their success, sending me home in tears more days than not. They didn’t do anything overtly to insult me, but rather it was their choices, to continue to ditch class, to get high before coming to school, to completely disregard any rules at home that were set up to support them that upset me so. It took me many more years before I was able to let go and understand why they did what they did and how I could continue to walk in to school every day despite their choices and consequences.

   My thesis was an eight week counseling program set up to teach high school students problem-solving skills in order to decrease the number of referrals they received and increase their time in class. I didn’t prove my hypothesis. I had developed a great program, ran it more than once, but due to the level of students I worked with and the fact that half were gone from each weekly counseling session due to their choices, my research “proves” that the counseling program didn’t work. Hogwash. What was not allowed in the last chapter, the one where the conclusion was stated, was that schools only have students for six hours a day.

   Nearly twenty-five years ago, when I first took a Human Development class, we were told that a person’s personality was developed by the time they turned five years old. Since then, brain research has moved that timeline to two years, and even the first few days after birth are critical for bonding with a primary caregiver. One workshop I attended over the years presented their research findings in how kids on the autistic spectrum, kids with oppositional defiant disorder, severe learning disabilities, and other issues could be traced back to a lack of social skills due to the inability to “read” facial expressions and body language in others. This was partly due to the primary caregiver’s responses when the child was an infant, as well as postpartum depression and psychological issues of the caregiver. The best part about the workshop was that they had designed a program to greatly increase students’ abilities to “read” social situations. However, this was done in a private lab setting that received funding from a university. Which brings me back to the title of this blog: Only Six Hours.

   By the time they reach school, their personality is set. Sure, caring teachers help students to fine tune their characters, to learn the lines of right and wrong when it concerns others, and to push them to strive for success in every area of their lives. And for the majority of students, teachers do a bang up job. It is every teacher’s dream to have classes full of students who learn at grade level, who are motivated, and take responsibility for their education. Instead, the gap between those motivated for success and those whose motivation is derived from disrupting class and other attention seeking behaviors, is widening. As is the academic abilities of students. The “middle of the road” kid barely exists any more. Why? There are several theories. Changes in the family dynamics, in society as a whole, in the lack of change in education to meet the more diverse needs of its learners. But my opinion for why educational systems affect students less is that we only have them for six hours.

   Years ago, when students were raised with in-tact families who usually had a parent who was home, grew up very different from the vast array of living arrangements and discipline practices that we see now. Back then, having students for six hours meant there was a bunch of learning going on. Now, six hours is only scratching the surface, and teachers must compete not only with technology and the increase that a social life plays in the life of a student, but also the difficulties in society and family dynamics, and teach curriculum, and develop their characters, in only six hours a day.

   Not always is the competition from home, but sometimes the difficulties observed in behavior at school are the very ones seen at home by the parents. The advantage to this is that it offers an opportunity for the school and the parents to work as partners to bring the student around to a place of success and choices that offer favorable outcomes for the student rather than a removal of all privileges. There are no forms to sign, and no way to know for sure if the parents, or all of the teachers, are upholding their end of the bargain when it comes to holding the agreed upon line with student behavior. The hope is that with the six hours at school and the hours when the student is with the parents, that the behavior is curbed, or redirected, and the student experiences success.

   As we know by now, there is no “returning to the glory days” of education, whatever that means for you. There is technology and societal changes and curriculum doesn’t hold the same allure it once did. Our six hours with our students is now a center for competition for their attention and efforts. A partnership with the parents and other teachers is beneficial, thus stretching the six hours of contact with struggling students. Review the students in your classes. How many are from “middle class” homes? How many are from a different ethnic or cultural background than a “typical” American student? How much of your time do you spend redirecting students back to task instead of engaging in technology and fellow students? Has the discipline issues increased in your classroom or school? How much of what you are supposed to teach is relevant to the students’ current or future lives? How much time do you have to spend with individual students, especially those whom you know that would greatly benefit from time with you? And how often do you get frustrated, knowing there is more you could do, if there was only time?

   Take a deep breath and know that you only have six hours with the students. Sometimes we’ll be able to recognize our influence in a student, and other times we’ll never know if what we said had any impact at all. There are many hurdles that are bigger than any one of us can solve. Know that each day you choose to walk into your classroom and do what you can for the students you can reach will make all the difference. And on those days when you’re pulling out your hair and questioning if anything you say or do makes a difference, remember, we only have them for six hours.

   If you’re looking for worthwhile ways to practice and assess what you’re teaching, visit my website and check out the materials I’ve created. Leave a comment if you have a suggestion for helping teachers remember that we only have students for a small amount of time.