As educators we have a responsibility to uncover the potential in every student. A no opt policy can aid us in fulfilling this duty. I told the story in this article of a student I observed in a classroom who was allowed to opt out. When asked about this student the teacher expressed he had chosen not to engage. When we allow students to opt out we miss their human potential, rather than helping them discover it.
From my experience, some students are allowed to opt out more than others. It is easier to allow students who don’t look like they care about school, or students with learning differences, or those who exhibit off-task or disrespectful behavior, to opt out. Here is where we must heed Marzano’s words, “A teacher’s beliefs about students’ chances of success in school influence the teacher’s actions with students, which in turn influence students’ achievement.” We must be honest about our personal biases and work to confront them in everything we do and create as teachers.
I have witnessed how we allow some students to opt out more than others both from my personal teaching practice and classroom visits around the country with Organized Binder. In both cases, when students are allowed to opt out, it rings of inequity, and I believe some of their human potential, what they can offer the world, remains undiscovered. I will tell you two short stories to explain.
It was a warm sunny morning in June, I had signed up to teach summer school. My district at the time served two main student groups, socioeconomically disadvantaged communities of color (most who lived on the east side of the train tracks) and largely affluent, white, upper middle class families (who lived on the west side of tracks). It literally was the “other side of the tracks” scenario and depending on the location of your home school you served one or the other. For summer school I was at a different school than my home school, up in the hills on the west side. As I had anticipated, when my students arrived to class that first day of summer school, they were white. I was about to get started when two students arrived late.
Before I tell you this short summer school story I want to tell you about my home school. We served mostly students from the east side of town. My colleagues and I took great pride in our school and students. We all chose to teach at this school because of the students it served. As a staff we regularly engaged in PD around equity, identity, racism, biases, and culture - also something we took great pride in. In addition, I was obsessed with Paulo Freire’s work around critical pedagogy and liberating education.
In walked my two tardy students. Both students were latino, wearing Chuck Taylors, neatly pressed Dickie’s khakis, and white t-shirts. What they needed was what every student needed, or maybe more so because they were the only students of color in the room, a big smile and a warm welcome. I can remember my internal dialogue which was something to the effect that these students looked just like my students who were gang affiliated at my home school. I did not articulate this verbally. I said hello as they sat at an open lab table and we started class.
In summer school I like to learn why students are enrolled. I found in previous classes that those who “had” to take the course because they failed it tended to be more off-task, disengaged, and behavior problems. Those who were enrolled to get ahead were the opposite - they loved the class, the labs and activities...they were engaged. Therefore, I always start my summer school classes by taking a quick poll to see who is in the room. You can probably guess what happened next, and to be honest I am embarrassed and ashamed by this story...however, it is one of those moments in my career as an educator that changed me forever. When I asked who was taking the class to make it up because they had previously failed it, every student in the room raised their hands. Every student except two. When I asked who was taking it to get ahead because they wanted to take more science classes during the school year, just two students raised their hands. My two tardy students.
As I write this I can still feel how I felt that moment. But more importantly, I wonder how they felt? I am certain they were more than used to being perceived the way I saw them that day when they entered the classroom. For students who don’t look like, act like, dress like, speak like (insert any word you want here) what we think of as a “successful” student, it is easier to let them opt out. I had immediately labeled these students before we even spoke. By the way, what does a “successful” student look like anyhow? It looks like all students! If we are not honest about our biases and work to confront them, those biases may seep in and begin to define our practice as educators.
In my work with Organized Binder I have seen this play out in school and classrooms around the country. It is not always the case, but oftentimes when I have observed classrooms where students are allowed to opt out, that particular school serves students of color, second language learners, students with learning differences...basically any student group that does not fit the mold. Additionally, the disparity in school environments is abrupt - walk through a school on the south side of Chicago then later that day take another tour on the north side of town. There is no comparison. I have seen this in NYC, Washington D.C., Cleveland, San Francisco, Los Angeles...the list goes on.
As I tour these schools I always feel that we are allowing the school to opt out, in a way. Similar to classrooms where students are allowed to opt out, these campuses feel forgotten about. What is most troubling is that opting out translates into lost human potential. Every person on this planet has something to offer. Every individual has something to contribute to make this world more hospitable, more loving, more sustainable, more understanding, more tolerant, to name a few. That is why it is our duty to opt everyone "in". If we do their potential, or an aspect of their potential, may be discovered. When we allow students to opt out they miss something, even if it is just one lesson, they still miss something, and that is in violation of our duty as educators.
For the sake of the human potential in every student you serve, integrate a way of “opting in” every person in the room!