My Students are Struggling and it Makes my Job Harder as a Teacher

I went to a social gathering recently where I met a young college professor. He teaches communications at the local university for the last 3 years. Friends asked him what he teaches, does he like his job, how long has he been doing it. The first thing on my mind and what I asked was, “How are the students doing?”

I was curious how his students are faring in academia. Because of the pandemic, many of them missed one or two years of in-person learning. They logged into Zooms to complete their high school years, or started college from behind their screens as freshman. I also asked how his students are doing because I genuinely care about them. I’ve never met them, and yet I care about them. I want the best for them. Just like with my own students, I want to know what’s going well for them, and what’s not working. I want to help them.

Teaching can be super tough at times and take so much of my personal time. But I still do it because of how much I care about my students. I want to help them learn and be successful. It is the best feeling when they have AHA moments, or we have a fascinating science discussion. And when things go smoothly it is generally a pretty awesome day. My students give me the motivation to put in the extra hours to create a science class they deserve. They inspire me to do hours of research, lesson planning, and grading. Everything is for them. Without my students I wouldn’t have a job. They give me tremendous purpose. They are the future of the world.

As much as I adore my students, they are also a big part of the challenges I face in teaching. At times I struggle to teach through extra bullshit like disruptions, drama, talking, no motivation, distractions, and bad behavior. Without some strategies and practice in classroom management, I wouldn’t be able to articulate much at all. Things could quite literally devolve into chaos. And that’s just crazy, but it is a reality of what’s going on in schools across America.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who are struggling. My students go through all kinds of challenges. Bullying, friend drama, life pressure, ADHD, stress, anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, fear, neglect. You name it. And this was all before the pandemic!

With my experience and understanding of our education system, I feel like I need to speak up about the problems that are bringing everyone down, students and teachers. I feel like I have a duty to fulfill. I want to make a difference and help make change where it is badly needed. With this blog post I hope to shine a light on my students and some of their struggles.

Their Mental Health is Suffering

During my lessons I want to ask questions like, “What is the sequence of nucleotide bases in this strand of DNA?” “How do you start this Punnett Square?” Instead I ask, “Are you OK?” “You don’t seem yourself, is everything alright?” “You seem really tired today. What time did you go to sleep last night?” Their sadness, tiredness, loneliness, and stress are written all over their faces. Even after a great week in the classroom, I am often left with this nagging feeling. It feels like I didn’t do enough. Like I let my students down. I worry about them.

These poor babies. They are suffering. They need someone to talk to. They need support. They need guidance. Not what college they are going to go to, or what classes they need to take. They need guidance on their fight with their mom that morning. Why they keep fighting with their friends. They may have complex feelings from their parents’ divorce. Their brother who has been on the streets and missing for 2 weeks. Fear that they or their parents will be deported. Low self esteem. A busy mind that keeps them up at night. And unhealthy habits with cellphones, social media, and video games that leave them feeling depleted and unfulfilled.

Guidance counselors just don’t have the time to meet with every student one-on-one and provide some of these supports. Interventions for extreme discipline issues, truancy, and low academic performance take precedence. The most needy students will get the support of guidance counselors. Without it they won’t graduate. Worse case scenario they will drop out, or end up in prison.

They Need Extra Support

In teacher school I learned about Special Education, IEPs, and 504 plans. These supports, accommodations, and modifications are essential for students to thrive and feel supported. They can take extra planning time, like making copies of notes, and IEP meetings. I was prepared to do this extra stuff to support my students when I started my first year teaching. It’s part of the job of being a teacher.

However, I wasn’t prepared for the reality of having dozens of students who need extra help. Like, above and beyond extra help. Except the support they need isn’t laid out for me in an official document like an IEP. Every year I teach students and I wonder, How did they make it this far? I have to drag some of them across the finish line every single day. Without my extra effort, they wouldn’t start work, finish it, or turn anything in. Basically a lump on a log. I wouldn’t even describe it as low motivation. It’s more like no motivation.

They are Far Below Grade Level

Each year I get students who have gaps in their learning. Their reading and academic skills fall below grade level. I look at their school record, and find that they had all F’s in their 7th and 8th grade classes. If I go back even further I can look at low test scores in elementary school. Their grades reflect that they fell far below meeting the standards. They had nothing to show for what they learned.

When I was in grade school, if you failed, YOU FAILED. Students went to summer school, got tutoring, got held back, or repeated a grade. You only went to the next grade if you passed. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. Even with straight F’s their entire middle school career, or extreme bad behavior records, or truancy, students still promote to the next grade.

It is evident right away that these students do not come to high school equipped with the skills they need in order to succeed. They require a lot more coaching, guidance, scaffolding, and leeway than the general student population. And that’s understandable, students are unique and have unique needs.

But teachers everywhere are overburdened trying to provide extra supports to increasing numbers of students who have these super high needs. Like when I have 9th graders who cannot read. In teacher school they don’t even go over early reading skills or teaching strategies for this. It was more like, by middle and high school, students should already have those skills. As a teacher, I feel unequipped to help some of these students. While I see it as my responsibility to help them succeed, it is to the detriment of everyone else. They take so much more of my time and attention. What they really need is more one-on-one instruction, smaller class sizes, maybe a slower pace, and reteaching of material they missed out on previously.

Bad Behavior Brings Everyone Down

When a student is a handful, low grades and test scores are just one red flag. In order to help them, I try to learn more about their school experience before they came to my class. I’m not surprised when I go into their file and find records of conferences, detentions, suspensions, interventions, and behavior plans. Often the record shows excessive tardies, absences, and even truancy. Basically, some students have a hard time in school year after year.

Bad behavior can look like a lot of things. Speaking out of turn, disobeying the teacher, not following directions, not doing work, bad attitude, fighting, destruction of property, and saying or doing inappropriate things. They come in like a wrecking ball. And not the cute Miley Cyrus kind. Some students can ruin my whole day just because they are in my class that day. They can be that bad. The worst part is that they are taking everyone else down with them. They take teachers’ time, energy, and attention away from students who actually want to learn. It’s not fair. The time I spend coaxing the bare minimum out of someone is time I could be spending going deeper into science content with more motivated students.

A few years ago I worked really hard with one student in particular, Gabriel. To his classmates he was fun, funny, and on the football team. To me he was a handful. I remember he would routinely fake sob and he wouldn’t stop. It was so distracting. He needed so much attention from me, otherwise he would try to derail my whole class. My straight A students were probably miffed when I gave him a compliment for taking out a pencil, for example. He would randomly shout out at inopportune times. He would talk to other students during labs and lectures, totally oblivious to me and the rest of the class. I had to keep a close eye on him, lest I would find him across the room and socializing with whoever would listen.

By March, he showed a lot of improvement in my class. He showed more self determination. He actually became a leader in my class. He loved science. I was proud of the progress he made. But deep down I knew that these changes were because of me and the extra effort I put into him. He was still a terror in his other classes. But at the time I was just grateful to have control of my class again.

The next year my friend and coworker was Gabriel’s science teacher. The year started OK, but by winter break Gabriel was transferred out of that class. He showed insubordination. They got into screaming matches. My friend just couldn’t tolerate it anymore. I was devastated when I heard about what happened, but I wasn’t surprised. When Gabriel was my student, I was pushing a big boulder up a hill every day. I knew that if I stopped, it would just roll right back down the hill. And that’s what happened. It didn’t stick. He needed so much extra help and attention. And it was to the detriment of everyone else in the class.

Screen Time Leaves Students Depleted and Unfulfilled

Social media like TikTok and Instagram are utter trash. My students think Facebook is lame, and they don’t use it, but that’s trash, too. I personally like YouTube, but the make-up tutorials and the influencer stuff my students watch is all garbage. They are toxic and they are predatory. The algorithms and advertisers of these platforms exploit the reward centers in our brains. They are designed to keep us hooked and scrolling. And it’s working. There’s a great documentary, The Social Dilemma, which explains the manipulative nature of these platforms.

My students are obsessed with their phones. Many of them do not have healthy boundaries with technology. They play video games until 4 am. On a school night! They go to sleep looking at their phone. They sleep with their phone next to their bed, and even wake up in the middle of the night to answer messages. I see them watch Netflix while they do homework. I wonder what they will retain better, the schoolwork or the plot to whatever they are binge watching? They walk down the halls in their own world. Headphones in, head down. Sometimes rehearsing annoying dance moves to viral TikToks. They sit at a table with their friends, and rather than speak to one another, they text. How will this behavior develop over time? If they won’t even talk to their friends, how will they feel comfortable meeting people out in the real world? Collaborating in their jobs? Communicating?

I miss the days before TikTok. My students were still annoying with their phones. But they were mostly just texting each other and their moms. And wearing ear buds to listen to music. Now they can’t even walk to school without having their heads up their asses. I mean looking down at their phones. They literally walk while looking down. Next to cars and busy roads. It reminds me of Natural Selection and Survival of the Fittest in Biology. They are behaving so stupidly that they could literally die and remove themselves from the gene pool. Smarter people who can put their phones away survive another day, and live on to reproduce.

Too Much Homework?

At Back to School Night I explain my philosophy about homework to parents. Students need to finish their classwork, and whatever is not finished during class becomes homework. Here and there I might assign a short 10-15 minute assignment for review. Or they might need to study for a test. But I don’t really believe in assigning homework.

Students deserve to have a life outside of school. A social life. Sports. Family time. They should not be doing homework for multiple hours a night. I’m looking at you, English and Math teachers!! Obviously if we’re talking about an elite private school, then they can do whatever they want. The students there are hyper competitive and need to look as good on paper as they can. But in a general setting, it’s too much. My students complain about the stress from their workloads, and homework is one of the biggest complaints I hear from parents.

There is so much pressure put on Math and English classes these days. Funding for schools is tied to standardized test scores, and students are overwhelmingly being tested in these areas. This means that teachers and administrators are under scrutiny for students to perform. If they don’t, the schools can lose their funding. What this translates to for students is lots of homework in their Math and English classes. Sometimes an hour of homework in each subject. They look tired and burnt out. And selfishly, the importance placed on Math and English makes my science class feel like chopped liver.

Other Stuff

One year I had a 6th grade student who had been previously homeschooled, Estelle. She was quite intelligent. But her social skills left much to be desired. It was the first day of school and it as my very first year teaching. I was nervous, but everything was going smoothly. I went over the syllabus, classroom rules, and we were getting into icebreakers. My Favorite Things, to be specific. I had passed out all the papers and was making my way back to my teaching spot so I could write under the document camera. Then I noticed a scurfuffle. Two students were arguing at their conjoined desks. Estelle was raising her voice, and she looked distraught. The other student looked confused and stayed silent, hoping not to get in trouble.

I walked over just in time to hear Estelle’s one-sided argument over the piece of paper I had just handed out. A tiny corner of her neighbor’s paper over-hanged onto her adjoining desk. All of a sudden, and without any warning, she screamed, “GET YOUR THINGS OFF MY DESK!” Her words were accompanied by a dramatic sweeping motion of her arms, and every pencil, notebook, paper, and little thing that was on both of their desks was uplifted into the air. They flew off, hit other students, and clattered to the floor and all around. Surprise, shock, and confusion filled my students’ faces. As a new teacher, I was like, Ummmmmm, what do I do? They didn’t cover this in teacher school?!

Anyway, dramatic scenes like this played out throughout the school year. Estelle was an only child, and being homeschooled, she was not comfortable interacting with her peers. She had major tantrums, like right in the middle of science lessons. Every group I put her in led to some kind of an argument and them complaining to me. It was a lot to handle. Especially as a first year teacher. The point I’m trying to make with this story is that students come from all kinds of backgrounds. They have unique situations and unique needs. I might assume they will come equipped with certain skills, but sometimes they don’t. And it’s still my job to teach them.

How Will the Pandemic Impact Learning?

If you stuck around this long and you are still wondering about how those college students are doing, it scared me what the young professor said. He said that many students don’t show up to class. He said that’s OK since he doesn’t give an attendance grade, so it’s not really required that they show up. If they can learn everything without coming to class, and would rather work on their own, then so be it. But in some of his collaborative small classes of 20 or so, the overall sentiment is that students don’t want to come together. They prefer to miss class entirely than to communicate. He elaborated that because of teacher shortages during the pandemic, many students were in overcrowded Zooms. There were no opportunities to participate. So something else he sees is that students don’t know how to contribute. They just will not share.

I had a lot of my students tell me how hard it was for them in remote learning. Many just didn’t have the motivation to log in everyday and do the work. As their teacher, I can attest to this as well. Every day I have students who would just sit there if I let them. Without my extra effort, they would fail. During the pandemic, many did fail.

I tell my students that I love them all. And I do. If one of them asks, Who is your favorite student? I say, “You’re all my favorites for different reasons.” And I mean it! But I can love a student and also think they are a nightmare at the same time, haha. One of the hardest parts of teaching is the daily distractions that arise from all of these big problems that my students face. But science problems are what I’m most qualified to help them with. I’m a teacher. I know science and learning, and after 7 years of teaching I know a lot about classroom management, too.

The bottom line is, everyone does better when everyone does better. There’s work to do so students can thrive and teachers can do their jobs. I don’t have solutions in this blog post. I’m working on that in another post about how public school should be different. Stay tuned for that!

Special shout out to Melanie in the UK! Thank you for showing an interest in my blog and reading my posts. I appreciate you and everyone else reading this. If my blog helps you, that is amazing. If you are interested in learning more about me and my career in teaching, please stick around and check out more of my posts. Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment. I would love to hear from you!

Published by How She Teaches

I teach Biology and Earth and Space Science in high school and middle school. I want to share my personal experiences and teaching milestones with anyone who wants to learn.

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