The 10% I Rarely Reach

Jose VilsonEducation, Resources10 Comments


Today, one of my perpetually tardy students came in. I left my door open and, as usual, I let him in without little fanfare, because it’s not a situation I need to do a lot of yelling for. I told him good morning. He reciprocated. After I got to walking around, I noticed a student passing him work that had little relevance to math. Without yelling, I told the parties, “I need you to get back to work.” They nodded and waited until I walked away. However, I noticed they continued to make it a discussion that, frankly, took them away from the task at hand. I can understand the worry of not having homework done in the class, but there’s this pressing urgency I have in my class because I know the skills necessary for them to get to high school in mathematically sound shape.

This doesn’t matter much to the student; rather, he wanted to complete someone else’s assignment in my class and told me under no uncertain terms that he wasn’t going to do my work at all. I nodded and simply stated that both the giver and recipient of homework (that they ought not copy from one another anyways) would have this reflected on their grade for the day. The giver hung her head, but the kid who was late had no such remorse. He yelled and hollered, making a scene that I’ve withstood in previous years in my career. How I responded was the equivalent of a yawn, de-escalating the situation before resetting the mood in the classroom. As the adult, I didn’t let it escalate too much further.

It just reminded me after the class that, no matter how many students I have, my 10% theory proves true. I honestly believe that I have high expectations for my students, and every so often, I get better at teaching to these lofty benchmarks. 30% of the students will do their best irrespective of whatever teacher you put them in front of. The critical 60% of students will waver depending on the teacher but generally want to do what’s best academically, even if they have academic deficiencies. Yet, for whatever reason, there’s always that 10% that we all concentrate on, and often makes or breaks the class. I’ve had hundreds of students under my watch now, and I honestly don’t quit until the very last day, finding ways to interject some math within what they’ve known.

Yet, I can’t break through. Will I display a snazzy infographic breaking down the excuses based on percentage I believe versus what most likely turns these kids away from me and / or any teacher. I’d love to point the blame at abject poverty, sordid family issues, a series of educational decisions placed upon them that eventually led them to totally hating math, chemistry between present teacher and student, lack of routines in their lives, or a consistent set of supports that might have helped alleviate his angst.

I just can’t. I can only blame the things I can control, or the thing, or … me.

That’s why tomorrow I’ll have to come in with the same temperament, un-rattled, hoping something changes. I refuse to quit on kids like that because they’re the ones that need the most attention. I can ignore the small stuff, but I have to set a standard for how I approach the job. And when he’s ready to come on board, he’ll be welcome in, too. Late or otherwise.

Mr. Vilson, who thinks he’s far too honest …

Comments 10

  1. we need more like you. we do. you represent the small % of educators that not only care about the students they teach, but dare to go the extra mile (and beyond) to reach those who need the most attention/support, without wavering.

  2. Jose…I feel the same way. It really is that 10% that really needs you, but only consistency and calm will ever win them over. They get yelled at plenty, so doing that accomplishes nothing. I think what they lack is a belief that adults or persons in authority in their lives can be counted on. they have been let down and hurt too much why should they believe me when I say I really want to help? I truly believe that my manner and how I handle all my students with respect is the only way I can get through to them. I have to be this way every day, so that they see that I am a person of my word. Hope this makes sense to you…it is hard to really put into words how.

  3. Thanks for this, Jose. I have had dozens of these 10% kids come through my door over the last 6 years. I, too, have concern that they are not learning what they need to learn. I also feel compelled to ‘break through’ to them. However, I’ve come to believe that what some of these children need is not my concern for their academic success, but as you state and as Theresa describes, they need to know that there is an adult who cares. Some of these kids can’t show it, or don’t want to show it, but I have to believe that just having a candid conversation and truly listening or simply not yelling or hollering or name-calling or using sarcasm and put downs toward them can make a difference. Sometimes those are lessons that we teach. And yet, still, many leave me the same way they came to me. I can only know that I, like you, never gave up on them.

  4. I refuse to quit on kids like that because they’re the ones that need the most attention.

    True enough that you shouldn’t quit on any kids. But need the most attention? I’m not as sure of that as I used to be. They are often getting the most attention or taking up the most time. There are a lot of other kids being overlooked, especially in that 30% — they look good, their work looks fine, no one every worries about them. They’re the ones who sit and lose time to the kids who are late, who yell, who refuse to work. But are they learning as much as they could? As they should? When they finally make it somewhere where the demanding 10% doesn’t interrupt the learning like that are they shocked at how much they don’t know?

    How much farther could some of those kids be going? What does doing the right thing all day while watching large chunks of the teacher’s time go to kids not doing the right thing do to you after a while? Do you feel ignored? stupid? shortchanged?

    I know this doesn’t speak to the day to day classroom situation — no room is perfect, no school is perfect, no teacher or student is perfect. And I don’t know quite how to get there in the short run. But in the long run, maybe we should be worrying about the 30% more and letting dedication be the attention getter.

  5. Post

    Thanks for all the comments. You all make valid points for sure.

    Jen, the difference is that in that 30%, I find that those students generally have work habits that will allow them to survive most academic inconsistency. At least the 30% I’ve had. I can tweak a few things here and there and they hit the ground running. The 60% I haven’t even touched in there range from students who behaved well but need serious academic attention to students who get lost because they need that academic attention, and everything in between. The odd thing about the post that I may not have conveyed strongly enough is that it’s not just about quantity but quality. How often do we complain or stress about the 10%? Could we relieve some of that tension by evening out the balance between hot and cold feedback for all students? Quantity and quality?

    Just thoughts.

  6. Jose, I was one of the 30%. I did not do fine in this scenario. I did all my work, I never caused trouble, and my grades were fine. But I was always, always, feeling a sense of low-grade frustration. It was comfortable for some of my peers — they liked it that they were not challenged because not that much could be covered in any given class period. But for me, it was frustration.

  7. Post

    EB, I was too. I’m just confused a bit by the statement. Responding to what I think you mean, I’m in no way saying that the academic rigor in the class has to decrease. Just saying that we ought to try our best to pay positive attention to the 10% the way we do for the 30%. Balance.

  8. I do think it’s interesting too that it’s really the 60% that tell you if you’re doing your job. That is, the 30% look good through anything and the 10% are difficult under most any conditions. But the 60% determine the tenor and are most dependent on your feedback/attitude.

    Maybe what I was saying is that often times I don’t see the 30% getting all that much feedback — other than gratitude for their “easiness.” They don’t get a lot of academic pushing nor do they ever experience the frustration of working hard to achieve something that may be far from their grasp.

  9. Here’s the thing that comes to my mind when I read about the 60/30/10…I agree with you completely but my take-away seems to be in a different direction than the other commenters.

    Why don’t people like to publicly admit that 10% of students aren’t going to buy into your instruction no matter what you do? I think that’s one of the most frustrating things for teachers–to constantly be told that 100% of students must be engaged and working on grade level, when that’s not happening in anyone’s classroom. ANYONE’S. Especially not in urban, high poverty schools. It doesn’t matter how much you try to form a relationship with some kids or connect what they’re learning to real life: they don’t have any interest in mastering those state standards you’ve got to teach them. Period.

    Does that mean we should give up on those kids? No. But it does mean we don’t need to beat ourselves up over the fact that they don’t want to engage. And it does mean we shouldn’t prevent the rest of the class from learning by arguing with these kids and trying to force them to do something they don’t want to (as you aptly demonstrated with your tardy student.)

    Thanks for keeping it real about the 10%. The more people who admit that they can’t engage every single child, the closer we’ll get to coming up with workable solutions.

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