It’s difficult… no, it’s nearly impossible to explain what I do sometimes. When I begin to describe my class, my day to day work as an Intervention Specialist, I am often met with some of the same questions, and understandably so.
So why are these kids even in school?
Do your students learn even though they can’t tell you anything?
Do you ever feel like you’re just babysitting?
These are valid questions. After all, I am in my 4th year of teaching at a school known for serving some of the most vulnerable, medically fragile students in all of Columbus. A class at our school, during a given year, could include entirely students in wheelchairs, fully dependent on staff for all their individual needs each day. I understand the questions, especially if they come from someone who has never been in our building. It sounds daunting. I mean, sometimes even saying it out loud feels daunting as I reflect on the work we do. Sometimes I stumble through my answers consisting of how much of a gift these students are, how they have incredible ability to teach us about life and love, and the joy it brings myself and the whole staff to work with them each day. But these responses have never felt adequate, and last Tuesday I finally found the language to explain why.
It was the second of three consecutive days without students to start the 2018/2019 school year. We were having meetings, preparing our classrooms, and gearing up for students to arrive Thursday. During one of our meetings we watched this video, The Myth of Average, and it was amazing. It added language to what has always felt was missing in my explanation of my job. I’ll explain it briefly, but I highly recommend watching it!
Todd Rose begins his TedTalk by describing how air force fighter jets used to be designed to fit “average” sized adults. It was creating a huge problem, though, because they had skilled pilots and intricately designed planes but were getting troubling results. Blame shifted from the pilots to the technology to the flight instructors before finally realizing their problem was the cockpit.
Fighter jet cockpits had been, up to this point, designed to fit the average sized adult. Seems reasonable enough, right?
“If you design something that fit for the average sized person, wouldn’t it fit most people? It seems right… but it’s actually wrong.”
Gilbert Daniels, an air force researcher 60 years ago, studied over 4,000 pilots and measured them on 10 dimensions of size: height, shoulders, chest, waist, hips, legs, reach, torso, neck and thigh. He asked one question: How many of these pilots are “average” on all 10 dimensions? It was assumed that most of them would be. But guess how many of the 4,000+ were?
He found that out of these 10 categories used to determine size, not a single size profile was exclusively average. These planes they thought were being designed to fit most people were actually fitting nobody. Nobody is average in every dimension of the size profile. It’s no wonder they were getting poor results. They had to adjust their design. How?
They banned the average.
From that point on the air force demanded that companies building jets design them to the edges of each dimension of size. Instead of building on the average height, for instance, they demanded they be built to fit the tallest of pilots to the shortest of pilots. They did so in each dimension of size. This idea is where we get adjustable seats in cars. It’s why my wife who is 5 foot 3 inches tall can scoot her seat forward and drive the same car I drive, and I’m 6 foot 3. It’s built to the edges.
Companies initially pushed back hard on this idea, saying it would be too expensive and difficult to design a flexible cockpit, but the air force wouldn’t budge. It turned out it wasn’t so expensive after all and ended up allowing for the most skilled pilots possible to fly the planes. Performance drastically improved, and their talent pool expanded exponentially. Many top pilots today would have never fit in cockpits designed on average in 1952.
“Now, most of us have never sat in the cockpit of a $150 million fighter jet, but we have all sat in a classroom… And I would argue that these are the cockpits of our economy, and we all know we have some problems.”
He goes on to use this as a parallel to education in America.
“We’re spending more money than ever before, and we’re getting worse results.”
The numbers he shares are sobering. We have more than 1.2 million high school dropouts in America each year. Further, more than 50,000 of them score as intellectually gifted. This means we’re losing some of our brightest minds each year. At the end of the talk, we learn Todd Rose himself is a high school dropout. Now he’s a faculty member at Harvard University.
This is where the shift came for me, where the more adequate explanation of my job shined through. At Colerain Elementary… we find the edges.
I’m always sure of this during our yearly meeting with the next grade level team. We had ours Wednesday as the 3rd grade team prepared to meet our students from last year the next day. We do the same with the 1st grade team as they share with us all about our new friends coming to 2nd grade. I’ll tell you what, we know these kids. We spent nearly 2 hours describing the ins and outs of each student moving on to 3rdgrade. It is a bittersweet meeting, because knowing these students from last year will be heading to a new classroom is a difficult adjustment. I miss them because I know their edges. We had a whole year dedicated to finding them, and it’s tough to send them along. But I’m comforted knowing that in the years that follow for them, their edges will be expanded even more.
Our students may face challenges and limitations in their learning, but we make sure to find exactly what it is that makes them tick. We spend entire school years with students who may never utter one word aloud, but we absolutely know what it is that will light up their mind. We know what they love. We know how they best learn. We find those edges. We find them, and we do our best to stretch them. We teach to the edges… and beyond.
Our students aren’t average. Then again, no students are. Some have an exceptional ability to memorize while others need to study religiously. Some are math whiz’s while others can read and comprehend books far above the average speed. Some can sit still in a desk for hours on end and others can’t sit still for more than a few seconds. There’s no profile that’s exclusively average.
Some of my students may not communicate the way I do but they’re always telling me something. Some may never hold a pencil, but they are able to learn and grow. They may never have the “traditional” school experience, but they deserve a school experience nonetheless. Plus, haven’t we already established that traditional or average is good for no one, anyway?
So we look for the edges. We explore the utmost potential each learner has, and we go for it. Full speed ahead. We collaborate. We explore. We advocate. We try new strategies. We introduce new ideas. Again, and again and again and again, until we find something. We insist every human being deserves an education. They deserve to be in a cafeteria with their peers, experiencing the high energy of an elementary lunchroom. They deserve to be part of gym class and social studies and recess and parent-teacher conferences and literacy night and talent shows and reading and friendship and learning and fun.
I love my school so much because the average was banned long before I set foot there. We look for the edges, and damn, we don’t stop there. We do so joyfully, because each student deserves it. We won’t stop until we find their edges, and then we’ll keep going.
To the edges… and beyond!