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The Student Gap: Why we should all Get Fired-up Like Matt Damon

Trying to synthesize the various experiences of the student teachers I work with can be a daunting task.

Our university  is located in such a richly diverse area where students are from around the world and the schools that they teach at are a vastly different experience. I trying to be more cognizant of my perception of their experiences and what it means to be a new teacher working and living in Silicon valley.

I teach a hybrid class where we meet face to face and online. Our online sessions are arranged as small groups. I love these working groups because it gives me a chance to get to know my students on a deeper level.

Last night we met virtually in a small group to discuss the school culture where they are student teaching. Each student in this group is placed at a middle or high school in the San Jose area. The first student who shared his school experience in Palo Alto described a performance oriented school environment where the stakes are high and the students are pressured to perform. Advanced Placement courses are a staple of the high school curriculum and all students have the opportunity to take college course virtually. Academic achievement is an expectation and their is a strong commitment from the parents to create as many opportunities as possible for students to be engaged in learning.

My student teacher however is an aspiring PE teacher who wants more than anything to instill a love of exercise and sports in the children he teaches. I was surprised to hear however that sports are not highly valued and students show up for the grade more so than for an opportunity to let go, have fun with their peers and enjoy the sport. His ideologies are at odds with the school culture, yet he believes in the students and the opportunity he has to shape their lives. At our first class meeting he shared with me that just this year two students committed suicide. The pressure to perform is causing a high level of anxiety and depression among students. I’ve never had this experience as a teacher, but I have as a student when a friend took his life in junior year. I think as an adult the impact is different and perhaps there is a feeling that you could of done more. Perhaps there is a feeling that the high stakes environment is too much and can lead to an unhealthy balance in young adults lives. Even at schools where parents will go above and beyond their is something missing at this affluent and high performing school. What is the missing piece?

Ironically the next student who shared described a school environment within the 20 mile radius of the high performing school with poverty stricken students, low academic achievement and programs to support student intervention, remediation and socio-emotional health. There was no mention of AP courses and high parent involvement. She described a culture of caring teachers, challenging students and a desire for all stakeholders to improve. She talked about the challenges of working in a school where over 21 languages are spoken, and not understanding the students at all times. She expressed a desire to connect to be part of their world but express concerned that their perception of her as a white female from a different culture and different town was keeping her students at bay. What is the missing piece?

Both teachers wanted to teach at their respective school. They wanted to because they have a desired to make a difference in the lives of the students they teach. One teacher at a high performing school and another at a low performing. Their desire to connect with their students, and be a positive impact in their lives was evident but more so was their desire to learn and improve their practice. As the face of education continues to shift and adopt more performance based approaches to teacher effectiveness it is vital that policy makers, parents, and school leaders understand the fundamental differences at the schools. Teacher effectiveness should be examined beyond just student achievement, if we continue to push in this direction we will continue to put young lives and the future of educators at risk and their is no turning back.

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About Dr. Dickenson

I am an assistant professor of Teacher Education at National University in San Jose.

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