How Teachers Work With Struggling Students

Mrs. Wedge, an English teacher at Leesville, instructs a group of students. She’s been teaching at Leesville since 1996. Photo Courtesy of William Sease.

The class rank is probably the most disheartening figure most of us read. While invaluable to colleges and universities, on the surface it reveals how many people our age, given objective evidence, are “doing better” than us. One of the first brutal facts we must face as adults is whether or not our academic standing, created in our youth and naiveté, may leave us with an impairment on our futures as we begin our adult lives.

Teachers play a huge role in our lives and, for better or worse, their attitudes and actions stay with us into adulthood. In our society, teachers are celebrated (though often not properly compensated) as the people who shape the future of the nation.

Ms. Amy Wedge and Mrs. Monica Wilkerson are both English teachers at Leesville who I asked to share their thoughts regarding the way teachers work with students who struggle. (The interviews below has been lightly edited for length clarity.)

“… I don’t view them as ‘at-risk’. That’s the first thing I do. I treat everyone the same. I have high standards and I try to help them rise to it. So, to me, were all ‘at-risk’. Every single student, even myself,” said Wedge, emphasizing the importance of treating every student with the respect the teacher expects of them.

Some claim that it’s difficult for people who find themselves on the lower end of the grade scale. When a student expends effort only to come up short, it creates the impression in them that they’re simply not good enough.

“They get down, sad, depressed. [They] quit easily, too much, on themselves, that they’re so in that moment that they can’t see out of it,” said Wedge. She went on to stress there is no student who cannot be successful. “So, with those that are failing, I’m like, ‘Look, all you have to do is turn everything in. You know. No zeroes. Start with that small goal.’” she continued by saying that when students experience success, it encourages them to think bigger and try harder, leading them on the path to self-confidence.

In the modern education system, students may, for a variety of reasons, consider extremes such as repeating a grade or voluntarily dropping out of high school. What is a teacher to do when confronted with a student looking over the edge?

“I usually contact their counselor and their parents. I’ll say, ‘Johnny hasn’t been doing his or her work.’ Johnny may have been talking about ‘I’m done with this.’, you know, ‘I’m getting outta here.’ And so I contact their counselor and their parents, let them know, hopefully call a conference, so we can all talk together, to try and see what we can do to help the student.” Wilkerson said. She also warns against worshipping the one-size-fits-all school environment. “…And sometimes, school isn’t the place for them, at this point in their lives. Some of them need to go somewhere else and sometimes come back or they need an alternative educational setting, and we work for finding those for students also because everybody’s not meant for this old factory model of bells ringing and moving from class to class,” said Wilkerson.

Ms. Wedge refuses to even consider the possibility. She expressed that she is often faced with this kind of problem, and she implores her students to persevere in the face of the challenge and asks questions to reach the heart of the struggle. “I had a situation last semester where the parent emailed me and said, ‘My child is quitting school. Not coming to school.’ And I said ‘No! No, Because they did this quarter one, I know what they’re capable of for the exam. So, this is the situation, what we need to try to see. Just tell them what they have right now, they can come take the exam. They would pass.’ You know, you have to show them a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.

Occasionally, there’s nothing to be done but for the teacher to prescribe a healthy dose of perspective. “I don’t understand how school becomes such a burden to some people. I saw it as a ticket. I lived in a small town and education was my way out. And they don’t seem to understand, ‘this is your job right now. If you don’t get this job right, you’re not gonna get a decent job later.’ It’s kinda like, they don’t understand or appreciate the value of education, and that’s the frustration I have. You know, students will say ‘I want to’, but they aren’t willing to do what needs to be done to accomplish that. And I think part of it is cultural, sometimes there are individual things going on that are legitimate concerns that may be distracting them, but it’s my frustration is when they don’t have the motivation, and sometimes there’s not the support, no matter what they do. That’s my main frustration. Because if a child is willing to work, then I’m willing to help them get over the hump,” said Wilkerson.

Ultimately, doing right by one’s students takes a relentlessly positive attitude and a genuine regard for them. “…Love yourself, love others, be positive. Choose happiness, and it all comes down to having love in the heart for others and seeing the best in everyone. When you treat others they way you want to be treated, you get that back. So, I love, and it’s like an ocean wave, it comes back tenfold, so it doesn’t matter what I give to my students, I get that tenfold back, like an ocean wave. Like, you know how that recedes and then comes back,” said Wedge.
For some, having a great teacher can be a life-changing encounter, and Leesville’s teachers go above and beyond in accepting this kind of role for their students. Perhaps it is the sense of personal fulfillment that comes with improving the life of another that draws many to the profession of teaching. For their responsibilities as the guardians of our collective future, they certainly deserve our undivided gratitude.


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