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All Children Can Learn – A Reflection

Attend almost any conference, read almost any book related to education, sit through almost any district’s opening days, and you will likely hear reference to the statement of belief that “All Children Can Learn.”  It is the perspective from which we are all supposed to be viewing our work with students.  Yet, all too often, we don’t give our educators enough time to push back, to honestly talk about their resistance to this belief statement.  Erin Paynter reflects on this  in her blog All Children Can Learn – A Reflection and notes that her staff doesn’t yet really believe this statement to be true.  She sees it as her role to move her staff forward through reflection and purposeful incorporation of this belief in the strategic plans for future work.  I could not agree more.

However, I think it is critical that we provide a safe space for the airing out of those beliefs that go against this ideal.  It is only by creating a safe space in which to lay out our frustrations and inhibiting beliefs that we can examine them honestly and discard them so that they do not continue to subtly and not so subtly sabotage our work.  Collectively, we are smart and sensitive people.  We come to the field of education because we believe in children and their potential.  We know what we should believe.  When asked, “Do you believe all children can learn?” we know what the right answer is.  I have never heard an educator say “no” when asked that question.  Yet, examine our actions and it becomes clear that many of us don’t really believe this.  Put another way, when push comes to shove, we don’t act like we believe this.

Why?  Well, when I reflect personally, the most honest thing I can say about my response to the statement that all children can learn is that I want to believe it.  Desperately.  The statement rings absolutely consistent with my ideals.  And I am aware not only that I want to believe it but that you want me to believe it too.  But when  Johnny has failed despite my repeated attempts at differentiation and engagement, and I can’t get Johnny’s parents to return my call, and Johnny refuses to stay for help after school, and I am feeling tired and overwhelmed, it is incredibly seductive to let myself off the hook and say, “OK, every child but Johnny can learn.”

Let’s get honest about our frustrations and our fatigue.  Let’s embrace our fear, because, yes, there is fear when we really adopt this philosophy that all children can learn.  The fear is that such a philosophy allows for no excuses.  It puts the onus on each of us as educators to do whatever it takes to facilitate that learning.  And that is a daunting task indeed.  Let’s get real about the unlikeable voices in our head, the ones that want to say, “I’ve been trying to reach Johnny for seven months now, all to no avail.  I stay late, I make phone calls, I worry and prod.  And what does he do?  Nothing!  Where’s Johnny’s responsibility?  It’s his learning after all.”  Only then can we really examine what is getting in our way of truly living this ideal.

We might then be able to truly come together and say, “Yes, we believe all children can learn.  And sometimes we don’t know how to make that learning possible.  And sometimes we get tired and frustrated and need to take some time to restore our spirits.  Yet we will keep working because we believe we too can learn.”

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