Who’s to Blame When Our Children Fail?

Williamson Children

“What did I do wrong?” my mom asked. “I parented your two brothers the same way I did the other three of you.”

It was a question Mom asked repeatedly in the waning years of her life, after one of my brothers died of a prescription drug overdose. When she died last fall, another of my brothers was incarcerated for the third time for crimes related to his heroin addiction. In the lowest point of his life so far, he forged one of my mother’s checks and used the money to buy heroin.

This week my brother finished serving his sentence for stealing from his dying mother. And I yearn for this to be the time when he finds what he needs to break free of his addiction and stay clean.

My sister, my oldest brother, and I laid our mother to rest last year without the two brothers Mom mourned for most of their adult lives. As we looked at family pictures in preparation for her funeral, I found it hard to reconcile my two lost brothers with the chubby blonde babies my mother so adored.

When my youngest brother was a senior in high school, his English teacher tried hard to help him become more than functionally literate. She told my mother, “We failed him somewhere along the way.”

Mom wept when she told me what his teacher had said, how the teacher had explained that my brother was passed on because he was “such a nice kid” and that that had been a disservice to him.

I had been an English teacher for five years then, and that was the exact moment I decided to get a graduate degree in reading. I tried hard never to give up on students like my brother, and yet I know that there are adults like him out there who sat in my classroom when I was hoping to save the world.

I think of my brother and students like him when the public discourse proclaims that the education system is broken and that teachers are to blame. His teacher was wiser than she knew. “We” did fail him—though no single teacher ever did. By “we,” she meant that the entire system and the society he lived in failed him, though no one really intended to. He had the same dedicated teachers that helped my sister and me become the first two of our grandparents’ 52 grandchildren to graduate from college.

If there’s one thing I’m sure of about education reform, it is that we need to stop looking for scapegoats and start looking for systemic and societal solutions to the problems that plague us. It is fruitless to beat down teachers who, by and large, work hard to help their students succeed.

Each time the pendulum swings from party to party, new solutions are proposed to appease the constituencies of the party in power. We need leaders who have the vision to look beyond the rhetoric of both sides—leaders who understand that none of us have the answer. If either side had a solution, it would have worked by now.

Part of our problem is that all of us have had teachers—both good and bad—and we tend to latch on to the solutions that most fit the teachers who were part of our own educational experience. And few of us look at the larger system and society that influence the way those teachers are able to do their jobs.

We educators cannot protect teachers who are harming children by ignoring their incompetence. But neither can a society demoralize all teachers by blaming them and taking away the pensions of those who have dedicated their lives to our nation’s children.

Neither of these solutions has proven viable. And neither has pointing blame at the losers in the aftermath of an election. While our educational policies shift from one extreme to the other, our nation’s children suffer.

In most instances, no single culprit causes the demise of a child like my brothers. And no single one of us can fix this problem alone. Where are the leaders—in our unions, in our professional organizations, in our legislative bodies—who are willing to take the risk of doing something that may not be politically viable?

We continue on the path we’ve chosen at our own peril. The more children we lose as we delay working together, the more our society will suffer. We need to lift up our children—to equip them to do better than we have been able to do. We can do it, but it will take every single one of us, working together to overcome the cacophony of pundits who loudly control our social discourse.

This week I attended the annual convention of the National Council of the Teachers of English. Most of the teachers I talked with paid their own way to the convention—even those who were presenters. Because the conference was in Washington, DC, I paid only the registration fee, but many of these teachers paid for their own airfare and accommodations as well.

I can’t begin to count the number of times someone has said to me, “In the real world…,” followed by a criticism of teachers. But I don’t have a single acquaintance in government, in business, or in a nonprofit who pays his or her own way to a professional event.

Every teacher I talked with thought the conference was worth the money spent. All of them cared passionately about finding ways to reach our disconnected and disempowered young people. And the majority of questions asked at the end of the sessions I attended focused on how to help children like my brother.

You hear those stories, too. So tell me a story—one that lifts us up—perhaps a story of someone who disagrees with your political views who has done something worthwhile for one of those children. These are the narratives that can lead us forward.

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