I was presenting to a group of educators a few weeks back when a collection of words popped up in a distinctly unpleasant order: We don’t have that population here. I flinched when I heard it because the word that was said in the tone that it all too often is, as if it stood in for a particularly onerous ethnicity, socioeconomic class, or class of disability. And it does, really, stand in for any one of those, or all three. That population is a phrase that people use to cover their fear of or discomfort with a perceived group when they would rather not state it outright. There is no more disappointing word to hear in a room full of teachers than this particular that. When we come together as instructors at one of these seminars, symposiums, or conferences, the goal is a shared feast of new and promising ideas. And if that is the goal, then that is a frown at the table that signals at least one participant’s distaste.
Let me be clear: If you are in education, then you are working with that population. Really, you are. If you think that you aren’t working with any poor children because you work in an exclusive private school, look closer. Find the set of parents who look the most tired and compare their clothing to that of their student. Glance at their shoes. Take a peek out the window and see if you can spot their distinctly crappy car in the lot or maybe catch them walking to the nearest bus stop. I have known parents who have mortgaged their homes to get their children what they believed to be the best in educational opportunity. I have known multigenerational families in which every adult member worked toward one seemingly miraculous goal: getting a child into college. If you’re wondering what a poor family will do to reach that goal, the answer is anything and everything. The result of that desperate dedication is that you have poor children in your classroom; I promise you that you do. And that’s okay. Really.
If you think that every student in your school speaks the same language, be advised that being bilingual doesn’t always come with an accent. It also doesn’t come with any particular skin color. There will be children in your classroom with beautiful, dark brown eyes and thick, wavy, often glorious hair. They won’t all speak Spanish. But some will. Just like every blonde and blue-eyed student will not necessarily speak English. Not perfectly. That’s because English may not be the first language that they heard or spoke. Mom and Dad might not speak any English at all. You may have a first-generation speaker on your hands. And that’s fine. In fact, that’s great, fantastic, and incredibly fine! It really is, so long as you acknowledge that for these second-language kids, learning to read may take more effort, and, often, more time. I promise, though, that if you do the work and simply allow the time, it really will be fine. I swear that it will.
I have heard more than one teacher in more than one school say that there are simply no students requiring that much remediation or support in their classrooms. Sorry, but that’s just not true. In my line of work, I have come to recognize that learning disabilities and differences are not always recognizable. They really aren’t. Let’s just take dyslexia as one example. It astonishes me to no end the way that dyslexia can cloak itself in brilliance and creativity, propelling ideas around a neural network like Jackson Pollock propelled paint: chaotically, I’ll grant you, but also with a fair degree of magic and ingenuity. Dyslexic brains are different and fascinating in their difference, but they are different, which is why your A student is all bleary-eyed when she turns in perfect homework. Don’t get me wrong, perfect homework is awesome! On the other hand, staying up for hours to complete an assignment that should have taken ten or twenty minutes is not. So while you may not have students in your general education classroom who look like they need that much remediation or support, you most certainly do have students who deserve exactly that much of either or both. Whatever it takes. And I know that you can and will rise to meet that challenge, because that’s what teachers do—day in, day out. I know that you do.
I apologize in advance for bringing up this final group, as talking about them often feels like rubbing sandpaper across one’s heart, but I can’t ignore them. These kids maybe aren’t tired so much as terrified. They jump at loud noises and shrink at raised voices. They are less poor and more wanting, if that makes sense, because the things that are missing from their lives are enormous: parents, a safe place to live, a consistent place to learn. These students have moved and moved and moved in the space of one school year, sometimes even in the space of one semester, so they don’t make friends. They often don’t want to. Friends cost us feelings, and they may have already spent all that they have seeing someone that they love hit, or shot, or ill, or gone. We know now what trauma does to the brain; it alters the paths that neurons take the same way that an unyielding surface will distort a branch on a growing tree. They’re just trying to survive, and you’re asking them to read. Silly you with your books when they have not one thing that they need. But hang in there with them, do the work and be patient in a way that you never thought you could be, because twisted branches will grow the most beautiful leaves. You might have to look closely to see them, but they’ll be there. One day, they really will be.
I grew up primarily in the eighties, the child of a teacher and a student in classrooms peppered with kids who would now be considered members of that population. Back then, only the most obviously challenged kids went elsewhere in the building. Inclusion and differentiation were still very much in progress, Spanish speaking children were entering schools in growing numbers, and the racial landscape was rapidly starting to change even in my rural community. And of course there was poverty, everywhere. Teachers were under-supported and overwhelmed then just as they are now: too many students, too few resources. Would it help if I said that I believe in you? Regardless, know that your students do, especially the littlest ones with the biggest questions and the deepest wounds. It doesn’t even matter which version of that population they may or may not belong to, when they look to the front of the classroom, every last one of them is looking at you. And they honestly believe that you know what to do. So the next time that someone like me, who wants to help, is standing front of you, be skeptical, yes, but listen. Because we all owe it to these kids to do everything we can to make sure that you do.