Read This If Your Students “Can’t”


It’s always enlightening to be around first-year teachers. They often have important insights for those of us who have been around a while, and they help to remind us of some of the ideals we can’t afford to forget.

In some cases, they can remind us of other things, though, such as how to be the teacher we should never want to be.

At a recent professional development, I sat in earshot of a first-year teacher. She didn’t bubble over with enthusiasm and joy for the job and her charges. Instead, she seemed to have resigned herself to that old, disgraceful, and indefensible argument: “My kids can’t.”

I loathe hearing people say things like, “My kids can’t.”

Once you believe this lie, you cease being a teacher for anyone but yourself. What kid needs a teacher who believes only that he can’t and not that he can? Why do teachers choose to take the negative attitude over the positive? How many kids are falling behind and failing in their own belief about themselves because their teachers are sending them messages that they are worthless?

I did say something to this first-year teacher, as calmly as I could, in defense of her students (who I, of course, have never met.) Miraculously, though, I just knew that hers were not the kind of kids who couldn’t, and that they just had to be the kind who could.

Incidentally, anecdotal evidence proves that every child CAN when they are given opportunities to show they can.

What I wanted to say to this particular teacher wasn’t too kind…

“With that attitude, the only one who can’t is you. Please find a new profession.”

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6 responses to “Read This If Your Students “Can’t”

  1. Any individual can accomplish amazing things! We all have seen such miracles. The trick is to find the right motivation and the right language that helps the individual learn. and that is NOT easy, but that is the role of the Teacher. I hope this person experiences such little miracles soon and finds her faith and responsibility in the education process.

  2. I agree, for the most part. But learning disabilities aside, and true poverty aside, students choose or don’t choose to learn

    • I disagree with this statement strongly. Many students are so turned off by whatever reason – boring curriculum, lack of differentiation, etc – that they tune out. Is this choosing not to learn? I don’t think so. Don’t blame the students for feeling the way they feel. Also, poverty and learning disabilities don’t make students unable to learn. No one is incapable of learning.

      • Matt, I agree with your response. I believe strongly that we must meet students where they are, ALWAYS. It is our responsibility to engage them and develop a learning environment that is conducive to meeting the individual needs of all students. Also, establishing a strong social/emotional foundation first is key for their success.
        ~Celina

  3. So true! And it’s incredible how damaging these pessimistic teachers can be. Did you know that, by third grade, 25% of African-American boys already believe that they lack the innate ability to succeed in school? Sometimes I imagine how different those kids’ lives would be if they had teachers who believed in them.

  4. Mr. Foteah, thank you for taking the time to post your insightful and positive thoughts, sharing them with the rest of us and reminding us that we are not in fact alone. Although I whole-heartedly agree with your point that as teachers we MUST believe in our students’ abilities, I can however empathize with that first-year teacher. Contrary to popular belief, most people go into teaching because they do indeed WANT to help children. It makes them feel good! The idea of “slacking-off” and/or “mooching off the system,” a system which allegedly “can’t get rid of them anyway” has never even crossed their minds. In fact, this action would be counterproductive to the goal they have dedicated their lives to achieving….HELPING KIDS LEARN! That first-year teacher is most likely scared to death of the situation she has been put in, possibly leaving her a bit disenchanted. Having your job security depend upon the test-scores achieved by a group of students who generally have extreme difficulty learning and/or being assessed in a “standardized” manner can be extremely frightening in today’s economy. HOWEVER, you are absolutely correct in your assertion that we, as the teachers and motivators of these kids MUST believe that they CAN do it…or else…they most likely will NOT be able to!

    Mr. Foteah, I want you to know that the great effort you put forth in posting your inspiring thoughts on the web is greatly appreciated. As I read through several of your recent posts, I realized that you remind me of so many of the WONDERFUL teachers I have had the pleasure of working with since beginning work as a special education teacher in the DOE. Thank you for putting yourself out there, proving to this city that there really are people within these schools who do in fact care deeply about their children, and would stop at nothing to do the best job possible in order to offer them a chance at the success they deserve. MY SINCRERE THANKS TO YOU!!!

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