Low Work Ethic Vs. True Barriers to Learning?

I’ve had this post in my drafts folder for over a year now, where I was struggling to help a student (and their parents) figure out what was the underlying cause of a drop in performance.

Something I’ve struggled with on my road to becoming a high school teacher is accommodations for students.

I grew up in the 80s and 90s, and my background is largely academic, so needing help of any kind was seen as weak. You get the mark you deserve (whatever you got on the test), and that was that. If you didn’t do well, the fault was entirely placed on your shoulders. It was your responsibility to learn the material, NOT the responsibility of the teacher/instructor/professor.

Now things are very different. We know more about how different learners can be, and how some have much different needs than others. We have a better understanding of what we can do to help learners reach their potential and have the same opportunities to learn. I think this image sums it up wonderfully:

And it makes sense for all students to have an equitable opportunity to learn and to demonstrate their learning. But I struggle with what is “fair”. Sometimes it is more laid out for teachers – when students have an IEP, for example. We know what accommodations and/or modifications should be made for those students.

But what about for students who don’t have an IEP? And not only does this rely on  a teacher’s professional judgement, but many other factors come into play: the student, the parents, the administrators, etc.. Sometimes, these players can combine to help hone in on what is most useful for a student. But, other times, opinions are at odds with each other, creating tension and pressure between all parties.

How can we decide on the line between 1) the student is not taking responsibility by not studying or doing work, 2) there is an actual barrier to learning such as undiagnosed LD, anxiety, or other underlying issue and, don’t forget 3) both of the above.

In an ideal world, to answer this question we would work with professionals in education psychology, neuroscience, and sociology – or be all these things ourselves. But, obviously reality means this is not possible for every student who is struggling.

So, here’s where I get stuck: what things can we do as teachers in these situations? How can we best “guess” what is the underlying cause of poor performance, and what’s the best starting point to help? 

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3 Responses to Low Work Ethic Vs. True Barriers to Learning?

  1. xykademiqz says:

    I agree that there is now a nearly universal attitude that it’s the teacher’s duty to make sure everyone succeeds. We seem not to be allowed to speak of natural talent or work habits. For instance, there is such a thing as a natural talent for math, so kids who have it get the concepts across the physical sciences quickly and will need to put in way less time to get good grades; for others, the grade may not climb above a B even with heroic efforts. Honestly, I think as a teacher what you can do is try to explain things several ways, give opportunities for visual/audio/tactile learners, but at some point it has to be the responsibility of the student to both put in the work and to let you know that they are putting in the work but things are not clicking. I know I am vastly more inclined to help someone who shows me that they are really working hard but the concepts are not sinking in than to spend much time on someone, and there are numerous, who simply wishes to get a good outcome (i.e., grade) by somehow coercing me into lenience or doing their work for them rather than by rising to where the criteria are. The latter usually have no impediments to learning (learning disability or a severe lack of natural talent) but are rather lazy and entitled.

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