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The ABCs of struggling students

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The processes of teaching and learning are not just academic

By Menla Marlowe

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I have pondered for a couple of weeks as to whether I should comment on an issue close to my heart, but with the announcement of Chuck Hamilton's sudden retirement, I feel I need to speak up. 

According to the Enterprise, on April 23, school board members, administrators, teachers and parents met to review the improvement plans of each school in Marion County. Mr. Mullins, chairman of the school board, kept asking why children were not reading on their expected grade level. Although I commend Mr. Mullins for helping initiate a pilot reading program in our county, this action will only serve to improve reading skills, not reach the unrealistic goal of having every child reading on grade level. Principal Benji Mattingly tried to explain why that was an unrealistic goal, but obviously Mr. Mattingly's explanation did not suffice. So Mr. Mullins, here is the reason: Children are not mass produced in factories. They cannot be remade into a better product if they failed to meet quality control criteria. 

In the school system, we cannot start over. We cannot stuff a child back in his mother's womb and expect to get a different child. Fortunately, most parents are pleased with the child they have been blessed with and choose to keep him even if he isn't the smartest or cutest kid around, even if he hasn't developed socially as well as his peers, or even if he has physical conditions that might limit his mobility or communication abilities. I believe that's called love. When the day comes for this child to attend school for the very first time, those parents will share their precious child with a teacher who will have the responsibility of teaching this child and will have the joy of watching this child learn at his own level, rather than being pushed beyond what he can handle.   

The elementary teachers in our county have been given many opportunities through professional development, seminars and workshops to learn strategies to improve their teaching. They spend unknown hours researching, on their own, ways to better help the struggling child. Knowing that children are individuals with unique talents and skills, teachers quickly learn the strengths and weaknesses of their students. Understanding that children learn in different ways and at different rates, these skilled teachers have learned to start where a child is academically, socially and emotionally and take that child as far as they can. 

We have to realize that there are so many factors that make a child who he is. Some children come to school with a strong academic background, have been fortunate to have many social experiences or were born with an average or high IQ. Other children however, have had very few learning experiences prior to entering school, are perhaps mentally challenged, or have other emotional, physical, academic or social issues that may hinder their learning.   

We also need to take into account that children have feelings and some days it's just hard to learn. Children worry a lot and they do not have the coping skills that adults have. Situations come up in every family. Parents fight. Mom or Dad gets laid off. Grandma gets cancer. The dog dies. A relative is sent to jail. There's no money for rent. There's no food in the house. Someone gets drunk. A best friend tells him he hates his guts. Then there's always the realization that a child may be dealing with some kind of abuse. These are all unfortunate realities of children in our community, and it's really hard to focus at school when something disturbing is swirling around in your head.  

How can we expect children from such diverse situations and environments to be on the same playing field? We can't. It's unrealistic. I believe this because I was an elementary teacher in this county for 33 years. I have seen the struggling child get frustrated and the parents in tears because their child can't grasp those essential reading skills. As a teacher, I too felt extremely frustrated at times, knowing the child was trying so hard, but was still below grade level.  

Our elementary teachers have the daunting tasks of setting the very basics of academic learning into place and these teachers have learned through experience, that if one strategy doesn't work, they will find one that does. And when a child finally begins to grasp an understanding, even if it's three years later, you can bet that teacher will be giving that child a high five! Teachers want their students to be successful!

The reality is that the processes of teaching and learning are not just academic. That's right! It's not all about "the test!” School isn't just the 3Rs anymore. With the spotlight of bullying and school shootings in the media, it is now necessary to additionally teach children how to deal with these negative social situations in their own lives. Children have to learn that to be able to live in this world today, we have to accept the differences of others, be it a physical difference, a social difference or an academic difference. They need to understand and embrace diversity. Everyone has something to offer this world, and learning that early on, helps a child become more patient and caring as they mature. 

Again, children are not a product of an assembly line. Though we are fortunate to have some wonderful factories in Marion County, not one of them produces children. That's God's job. He purposely made them different. Fortunately for these children, the teachers in this county know how to teach to those different learning styles, how to meet the needs of the struggling young readers and how to encourage special talents. Do all the flowers in a garden bloom at the same time? No. Nor can we expect all children to academically blossom simultaneously either.