When We Say a Student Can’t Learn

Via Saved by the Bell Hooks (the site might be the best thing ever)

Teaching is a profession that can be both extraordinarily rewarding and extraordinarily frustrating–sometimes simultaneously. Sometimes we’re tempted to throw our hands up in the air and proclaim that this student just can’t learn. And sometimes we do.

And when we as educators say that a student can’t learn, we’re saying a lot of other things, even if they’re not things we really mean or believe. It’s such a tiny statement–a throwaway line when we’re frustrated–and, yet, it has a million connotative meanings that don’t even occur to us as the words escape our lips.

When we say a student can’t learn, we’re saying that we’ve given up on her.

When we say a student can’t learn, we’re saying that his needs as a learner are not a priority.

When we say a student can’t learn, we might mean we don’t know how to teach her, but we’re saying that she needs to shape up and get with the program.

When we say a student can’t learn, we’re saying that we’ve tried all the tricks in our toolbox and are afraid to ask for help. Someone might judge us, might say we’re a bad teacher, might tell us that if we were more competent, built better relationships, went to this PD, we’d be fine. Look at the teacher down the hall. She’s fine.

When we say a student can’t learn, we’re saying “I’m not a bad teacher. I’m doing everything I know how.”

When we say a student can’t learn, we’re saying that we’re scared.

When we say a student can’t learn, we’re saying “I don’t know how to help this kid and the 24 others in my class.”

When we say a student can’t learn, we’re saying we don’t care about her.

When we say a student can’t learn, we’re saying that we are tired.

When we say a student can’t learn, we’re saying he’s not my problem.

When we say a student can’t learn instead of “I don’t know what to do, and…”, “I’ve tried everything I know how, but…” or “I don’t know how to teach her, so…” we’re saying that it’s easier to put the responsibility for making sure everyone learns on the student rather than on ourselves.

When we say those words, we’re saying so many things. Deciding what we really mean and taking action will determine how successful we are in teaching that student.

When we hear someone else say those words, we need to take a step back and withhold judgement and offer our support as colleagues to help turn the discussion toward something proactive and helpful. In order to try to build a school culture where people feel safe saying “I don’t know what to do” and asking for help, we need to offer that help and support freely and without judgement. We can’t look at our colleagues and say “This teacher can’t learn,” either.

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