Teachers Can’t Save Them All

by | Jan 30, 2020 | Positivity & Inspiration

When you can’t save them all

By Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder

Teachers, as helpful, hopeful professionals, strive to make a difference in every life entrusted to them. We see a classroom full of students and want the best for them, and we pour our efforts and hearts into each one. We have been indoctrinated with the notion that it is our job to reach every child, and if we can’t save them all we are failures.

Laws set unrealistic expectations for teachers

If you don’t believe that, look at state laws and listen to politicians place the blame squarely on our shoulders. Afterall, No Child Left Behind passed by Congress promised that every child in the United States would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. 

Race to the Top required schools to compete for money instead of it going to the schools that needed it the most. Policy makers believed teachers perform poorly unless they had a financial incentive to work toward. They believed if teachers are evaluated on test scores and compete for that money they will try harder and students will perform better.

Some states and school districts have even gone to the point of a prescribed curriculum for each grade and each teacher. Teachers have been evaluated on if they are on the prescribed lesson at the prescribed time. Every class should be on the same lesson on the same day at the same time.

Laws ignore fact students are not all the same

However, laws do not address the circumstances from which our students come. The problem with all these laws and plans remains that students are not all the same. 

As teachers with students daily, we know that Johnny cannot read and Sally reads at a 4th grade level in 2nd grade. We know that Jimmy lives in his car and probably did not have dinner last night. We know that Joey comes from a wealthy family and routinely takes trips to Europe and has personally seen many of the places you talk about in World Geography, but Laura has never left the state she was born in. 

Teachers cannot be ALL

Students who come from different levels of care, love, income, safety and exposure to books and learning at home all require different things from teachers.

Knowing this, teachers try to be all things to all students. Reread that sentence. Teachers try to be ALL things to ALL students.

Realistically, we know that is not possible. Teachers cannot be ALL. However, that doesn’t stop us from trying every year with every student. Teachers want to be all. We want to be successful and to make a difference, and when we aren’t it hurts.

Think of the students who you did everything in your power to help. You poured your time, effort, energy and hearts into them, hoping to see a turn around. Over the years those students still come to mind, and you still feel that tug at your heart that you didn’t reach them. It’s heartbreaking but also a reality that you cannot reach them all.

Here are a few factors that are beyond your control as a teacher:

Poverty and Mistreatment:

Children living in poverty and experiencing mistreatment perform more poorly academically as a rule than students who do not, according to a Michigan study by Brian A. Jacob and Joseph Ryan published by the Brookings Institution. Likewise early trauma has a lifelong impact on students. 

21% of all US children live in poverty

Of course, we report neglect and abuse, but we cannot truly change how students are treated outside of our care. What we can do is to treat them with care, dignity and respect while we have them.

Poverty results in students entering school behind their peers. These students have a higher risk of lower test scores and dropping out of school. Students from low income households who graduate from high school have a much lower chance of attending college. They may also suffer from feeling inferior to classmates, being angry at their circumstances and feeling powerless to change them.

 As much as we would like to, we cannot change the income levels to which our students are born. What teachers do is try to fill in the gaps by feeding hungry students, giving them gloves, coats, pencils, shoes. 

Parental education:

Research shows that more highly educated parents are more likely to read to the children, use larger vocabularies, be more involved in their child’s schooling and hold higher expectations. More highly educated parents often also have higher incomes and can provide more enrichment and extra-curricular opportunities to their children. 

As teachers we cannot dictate nor determine the education level our students come from. What we can do is work our hardest to educate the children we have.

1 in 12 US children experience  having incarcerated parents

Parental incarceration:

Students who have one or both parents in jail are greatly impacted. Often these students do not have a stable home life because they may move from relative to relative or into the foster care system. Other factors include economic disadvantage, chronic stress and behavioral issues according to research by The Journal of School Health

Teachers cannot provide them stability at home, but we can provide them stability in the classroom through our routines, words and actions.

Family Structure:

Divorce, single parenting and cohabitation all impact students. According to statistics, divorce will be experienced by two-fifths of children in the United States by age 15.

35% of US children live in single parent households

For cohabitating parents, research shows that 56% of fathers will have moved out by a child’s third birthday. These situations often lead to instability, emotional trauma and stress for students. 

Research suggests that students often receive less one on one time, fewer enrichment opportunities and less time being read to due to time restraints of single parents. One result is that elementary age children are more likely to repeat a grade, while high school students have an increased chance of suspension.

Again, we cannot change students’ home dynamic, but maybe that will help us understand when Billy acts out or Sally constantly needs our attention. We can try to learn about their home backgrounds and use that to help understand their behaviors and needs. 

You can’t save them all, but you can love them all

When you study generational poverty and trauma effects, you begin to realize the uphill battle so many of our students face. We have to meet them where they are and love them while we have them. 

There are too many elements beyond a teacher’s control. We are just one influence in a lifetime of many. Despite our best efforts, a student’s home life remains the single most important factor for a student’s success.

Here is what we need to remember: we can’t save them all, but we can love them all. 

While they are under our care, we can treat them how we would treat our own children. We can show them love, respect and value. As their teacher we can open up a world of possibilities and provide the encouragement they may not get from anywhere else. 

At the end of the day, when you know you have given your best, you are not a failure. You were a bright spot in that child’s life that may have long-lasting impacts you may never see. Keep letting your light shine and keep on loving your students. 


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Susan Jerrell, TOFT Founder


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