For the majority of my career, I’ve been working with young people in schools who often don’t feel a sense of belonging, who often feel that teachers don’t care and who often feel that success is not something that they’re going to find in a classroom. Learning from their experiences and stories have not only profoundly impacted me as a person but has no doubt made me a better teacher.

I admittedly have a huge soft spot for these students. I struggled to an extent when I was in high school and know what it’s like to be in a classroom feeling inadequate, I know what it’s like to have a teacher not believe in you, and I know what it’s like to act out in a classroom because being kicked out of class is easier to deal with than having to stay in class. I used to think of these experiences as deficiencies within myself as to why I wasn’t able to find success as a high school student. I thought of myself as inferior to my peers and for a time my future possibilities seemed to be shrinking.

These experiences laid the groundwork for why I became a teacher. I enjoyed working with young people and I enjoyed teaching history. What I didn’t expect is that my struggles as a student in high school would soon become one of my greatest strengths as an educator having the ability to work with struggling students by offering a compassionate and empathetic support as someone who has felt what they’re feeling in classrooms.

What I quickly realized working with young people who struggle in schools was that part of being their teacher also meant being their advocate. It’s a role I wear with pride and I’ve become very passionate about. But most importantly, I’d like to challenge those of us who work with these youth (and to be honest that’s almost every teacher in every classroom) to engage in a paradigm shift of how we view and understand these students. Like myself, I saw my challenges and struggles in high school as a deficiency within myself, however, we need to take a broader approach to understand marginalized youth through a different lens.

It is my belief, that a deficit ideology permeates much of our thoughts when it comes to youth who struggle in schools. Specifically, we often place the blame for their lack of success on the individual student. We label them as lazy or unengaged or that they just don’t care. When their behaviours in class become challenging and extremely difficult we can even label them as a “bad” student. I know it’s not easy to find solutions to, especially when teaching with large class sizes with students of various needs, but often times the students that are hardest to love need it the most. Their difficult behaviours in class are often connected to trauma and not having their needs met whether in or out of the classroom. At least understanding this can bring us closer to learning how we can best serve these students.

When we see our students through a deficit lens we can more easily place blame for their lack of success or lack of belonging in our schools at their feet. It’s their problem that they didn’t work hard enough, didn’t get engaged and didn’t cooperate in class. However, this is too easy of a solution and prevents us from taking a good long hard look in the mirror about our practices as educators.

When we flip the script on these students we can start to see their deficits not as weaknesses, but as strengths, we can then begin the most important piece of their success in schools, and that is to build real and authentic relationships with them. Creating a meaningful bond with these students and establishing a safe, equitable and welcoming classroom can mean the difference between that student acting out in class and that student learning to participate in meaningful ways. These students have so much talent, skills and knowledge to offer our classrooms, it is heartbreaking to know that many of them never find a place to unlock those gifts.

However, it is also necessary to take a big picture approach to understanding the systemic forces that contribute to the marginalization of youth in schools. There is a mountain of peer-reviewed research on this topic that I won’t get into here, but for the purposes of this post, it would be worthwhile for those of us teaching in Alberta to ask tough and important questions about large-scale policies that impact our students. Specifically, it’s time that we have honest and open dialogue about the use of standardized assessment and streaming in Alberta. What we know from most research studies outside of Alberta is that standardized assessment and streaming students based on academic ability disproportionately impacts students of lower socioeconomic status and students of colour. This conversation needs to be coupled with an understanding how the issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and colonialism impact our schools and classrooms.

I know firsthand that having critical conversations about standardized assessment and streaming are not easy topics to have amongst teachers. There are a lot of beliefs across the spectrum and these conversations can tend to get quite heated. However, regardless of our own personal beliefs or values when it comes to these topics, we owe it to our most vulnerable youth to start the dialogue, do the research and most importantly, listen to the voices and experiences of youth who are least likely to find belonging and success in schools. Taking responsibility for their experience is a step we can take in the right direction to ensure that every student that walks into our schools and classrooms receives the care, dignity, and opportunities that all children deserve.