Deficit Thinking

I’ve been meaning to write about my experience at Center for Training and Careers (CTC), a contract alternative school that operated with the Minneapolis and Richfield school districts in Minnesota. The name is a bit misleading, as we weren’t a vocationally oriented school, but rather a school that offered a different setting than the traditional public school, but the curriculum was largely the same. We housed students that had been expelled from other schools, members of rival gangs at the regular public school, students that were working full time, and some whose home life just wasn’t conducive to a typical school day. I thought I was going to write about how difficult life was for some of these students, but I realized that struggle is all relative.

Some of the students at CTC had a remarkably positive outlook despite the obstacles that were placed in front of them. The problem with that thought is I would be trivializing any obstacles that my students face. It’s like I would be saying, “You think you got problems, let me tell you about problems,” without accounting for the relativity associated with problem perception. So I decided to scrap that idea.

My mind then wandered then to an idea of purpose, making sure I’m doing what my students need me to do. But I didn’t like the outcome with that draft.

This is my third attempt at writing about CTC. Each time I come back to the idea, I keep thinking about one conversation with my supervisor during my first year, during the first semester. The school year was not going good. Almost none of the students were doing homework, scores were miserable because of a horrid lack of prerequisite skills, and note taking was non-existent. I was looking at my grades, which were bad at best, and griping to my supervisor about all of the problems that I was facing. He interrupted me and asked me to think about why my students were at this school. He talked to me about all the ways that these students aren’t like students we find in normal school. He talked to me about making sure that we keep sight of what these students need.

That’s why I thought this was going to be about purpose, about realizing what my students need. In reality though, much of the purpose of my class is out of my control. The state dictates the content taught, OTES guides my practices and pedagogy, and stigma and traditions influence my behavior. So if that moment wasn’t about defining purpose, what was it really about?

I’ve come to the conclusion that my meeting with my supervisor was more about me than anything that goes on in my classroom. The problem I was experiencing was justifying my status as a teacher. To me my students were lazy, they didn’t care about school, or they weren’t prepared. I thought they didn’t have the support at home that they needed. I thought that their priorities were misplaced, that they were too concerned with social status and not enough with academics.

When my supervisor directed to think about my students he was actually forcing me to abandon my deficit perspective of them. I had to stop thinking about everything that was preventing them for having success in the classroom and focus on the ways I was preventing them from having success. It was difficult to drop it at first, because losing a deficit perspective means I take blame for my students failures. But as I gradually began to accept my part in my students struggles and failures I became a much more content teacher.

**An example of  my understanding of a deficit perspective would be the restriction of bathroom privileges in school. I should limit the number of times students use the bathroom because if I don’t, they will leave class constantly to go to the bathroom when they really don’t need to. The first time I catch a student wandering the halls instead of using the bathroom my deficit thinking is confirmed. In response, I limit bathroom privileges for all students because I don’t trust students.**

I am by no means perfect. I still find myself stumbling and placing the blame on students on occasion. I still catch myself in a conversation where I say, “I did my part, they didn’t pay attention.” But now I feel guilt every time I fall back into that mentality. It has become ingrained in me as part of who I am as a teacher. Lately, it’s been more of a struggle than it has been in the past (thanks OTES), and I have found myself leaning on faith more than I had used to. The temptation is there though, to just go back to the way things were. I don’t want to, and luckily very few of my students know that side of me.

I sometimes wonder if I would be the same teacher, or even the same person, if my first years of experience would have been in a more traditional school.



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