Teachers Are Problem Solvers

The primary job of the teacher is problem-solving. I’ll try to explain, but if you are a teacher and that doesn’t make sense you should quit immediately. There are the little problems like the kid who doesn’t have a pencil or needs a bathroom pass, with which I’m batting nearly 1.000. I’m really good at stylishly flicking pens from my pants pocket at least 4 times per period. But then there are the bigger problems, the problems that keep us up at night, the problems that challenge our students that go deeper than broken pencils or poor bladder management. With those problems, I often swing and miss.

In the past week, on two separate occasions, students busted through the door of my classroom during my 8th period prep with their eyes filled with tears. One student had just learned that her family had been evicted and her mom, and all of the belongings she could get, were now sitting on the street outside her locked house. The second student had just seen a Facebook post from an ex-friend that said all kinds of lies about her, and the eyes of her classmates told her that most of the school had seen the post before she had.

I’ve cried enough in my life to know what it feels like to look at the world through the blurred lens of unexpected tears, so I gave them my prep period to talk, to vent, and to try to get them some help. They both had problems, and teachers are nothing if they are not problem-solvers, even if in these cases the problems were out of the reach of my hands.

So many of the problems that we see each day are at least partly out of our reach, but I’ve learned that the best teachers view their work in solution-oriented terms. They view the challenges that arise in student learning, and beyond, as mostly solvable, and they dedicate their days and their lives to that end.

As I reflect on the last week, I see all kinds of opportunities for solutions. And this is what teachers do; they try to find innovative and accurate solutions to all kinds of problems that might arise in the lives of the kids we get to work with each day.

There is my one class in the morning where student reading levels span from a 3rd grade level to a post-high school level. Predictably, the two students who are struggling to read have started to give up, as there is only so many Everests that one person can be expected to climb before they start feeling as if the whole exercise is futile.

“I’m tired, Boll,” one of them admitted this week.

“Of course you are,” I responded quickly, knowing the unspoken challenges that he is facing.

“I just think this whole school thing is pointless.

This student, and a few of his peers, are in the 11th grade and it may be the first time that the school system has really tried the targeted interventions that he needs. The problem-solver in me demands that if someone can’t really read, then we should help them read. But having that conversation with an 11th grader who has spent most of the last 3 years in juvenile detention facilities (a reason why he has not received the necessary help) creates a whole new set of challenges.

“I’m sorry,” I responded and he looked at me with a bit of shock. “This whole education and justice system has failed you. And we can’t sit around waiting for police or superintendents to apologize to you, so I might be the best you get.”

He laughed.

“Thanks, Boll.” He reached out his hand for one of those slap/shake/hug things that this student offers at least three times per period as if to say, “Are you going to stick it out with me?”

“I got you, man,” I offered with a smile. “We have some work to do to get to graduation, so I can’t have you give up now.”

My head was already spinning with a laundry list of supports that we needed to offer that student, and about 4 others who are in his position, so that he can walk across the stage toward a diploma in two years. That offers part of a solution, but I know that just a high school degree doesn’t offer a realistic pathway to a meaningful career and a living wage for him. And with his history, he is a few bad days away from making some decisions that might flip him back into a system that unjustly attacks too many young black men.

So there are more problems to solve. In my idealistic brain, even the biggest of these problems seem solvable, but they probably require that whole segments of privileged America start to care about issues that many struggling communities are facing. And, as many of us know, privileged America is really bad at caring about people who aren’t them. If we can put a fence or a freeway between us and the problems, we can pretend those things don’t exist. It’s willed ignorance, and the “willing” of that “ignorance” is getting easier as we pad it with distance.

But reading levels, social media drama, and evictions don’t even begin to comprise a comprehensive list of the problems that most teachers think about. As Adam wrote last week, trauma seeps into almost every aspect of our classrooms through the cracked lenses of our students’ life experiences.

Sometimes this is quiet and we have to ask to learn why students aren’t working in class, and sometimes this comes into our rooms with a bang. As is always the case in neighborhood schools in late October, I have welcomed the influx of students that charter schools and public magnet schools have kicked out because the testing window is beginning. It’s fair to say that both public magnets and charters have utilized their ability to send challenging students back to their neighborhood schools, using the very threat of that action as a motivator in many cases, in an attempt to pad their own success measures and absolve themselves from that pesky feeling of problem-solving responsibility. This may be harsh, but not nearly as harsh as the impact of pushing challenging students out of our schools.

In my classroom, that means that students routinely enter 2-3 months after the start of school, who have recently been removed from other schools because of their issues with fitting into the traditional education model. They send them to schools that have just reached their own routines, worked through many of the challenges that each new year brings, and in many cases, they announce their presence with the kind of behavior that their choice school opted to expel. This isn’t unique to me or my school, but I have spent much of my free time in the last two weeks learning to know a handful of new students who, because of all kinds of reasons, are disrupting the academic process.

The loud disruptions create problems that require immediate solutions, but I am always aware of the silent student who is dealing with something else entirely. There is the student who I met for the first time this week because he came into my class and asked me to look up his academic history. He had heard that this is something I often do in an attempt to understand students’ learning. His reading levels were off the charts in elementary school, but they had steadily decreased since then. When I asked other teachers about him, they told me that it is hard to get him to even enter a class. When he does enter, he often finds a corner and buries himself in his jacket or a hood. He is so burdened by the ringing of a constantly triggered fight or flight mechanism from a sordid personal past that he struggles to face the world. Or at least the world of high school. He, and so many students like him, get less attention and attempted solutions because their problems are not disruptive. And as I write these words, I recognize that it speaks of another problem that requires creativity and innovation.

With layers upon layers in our schools, the work of a skilled educator is largely in removing those layers so that students and teachers can begin to address those problems that inhibit learning.

If I tried to get to the complete mindset of a solution-oriented teacher, this post would quickly turn into a multi-volume book. High school presents enough problems in a perfect setting. But most schools don’t exist in that vacuum of perfection, adding a whole world of other “problems” that require innovation and radical attention in each minute of each day. I choose to function under the belief that these problems are solvable, but it is idealistic to think that one person, one classroom, or even one school can begin to address all of the problems that our students are facing. That realization should not jade us or abdicate us of responsibility, but encourage us all on a continued journey of problem-solving.

Whether those problems are broken pencil tips, broken systems, or broken people.