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Falling Through The Cracks

3 Types of Students, We Fail To See Most Often.

As an educator I like to think that I never miss a kid. That I see, hear and value them all. But the reality is that I can’t catch them all. I know I have missed some, I know that there are students who for one reason or another I was blind too. This blog is dedicated to those kids we, as educators, miss. The students that we missed as they were falling through the cracks. The 3 types of students we fail to see most often. 

It is easy to see the kids who come into our rooms carrying a ton of baggage. The neon blinking sign sits over their heads as they walk through our doors. They look a mess, they can be loud and disrupt the classroom with a snap of their fingers. Those students with unkempt hair, dirty clothes, who never look you in the eye. Or the ones we are made aware of by our counselors or admin, before we ever see them, putting us on edge with all their red flags as we begin to judge them without ever meeting them. You all know the ones I am talking about. The ones we would probably let fall through the cracks some days but can’t miss even if we wanted to. 

the highfliers…….

Then there are the highfliers. Those students who not only achieve at a high level in the classroom but in all the extra curricular activities. Those students who are decorated, acknowledged, plastered all over the school’s social media so often it almost becomes nauseating. I taught at a particular school that had a case of the high fliers. They were the only students you ever heard about. The same 20 to 30 students out of 1,ooo that were students of the month, athletic award winners, officers in every club. I mean there was no telling how many were falling through the cracks because as a school we didn’t take the time to see the types of kids that are falling through the cracks.

We see the kids at the top, we can’t miss the ones at the bottom, but what about all that untapped unlimited potential sitting in those students somewhere in between. We miss those kids too often. The average lulls us to sleep because maybe there isn’t anything that sticks out about them. So much of our time is taken having to deal with students with the obvious problems. Too much of our praise is parceled out to the high fliers because it is easy and takes so little authentic effort on our part and it allows us to feel like we are making a difference. 

My own daughter was one of the students falling through the cracks….

I am challenging myself to see more of my students next year. To stop students from falling through the cracks. To see the average, to not let kids fail, and to stop letting the quiet ones go unnoticed and uncelebrated. I believe I have taught kids who are part of the ones we most often miss, this is dedicated to them and their teachers so that we catch them. And my own daughter was one, so this is in her honor, so that as a teacher, a coach, an educator, I for one, can be there for those students who are falling through the cracks.

The first type of student who falls through the cracks is that average kid, who does ok in most things, average drive, no real plan for the future but tries, and is the one we just assume is never going to be a success but won’t necessarily fail either. Those students who just work hard, never give us trouble, but never really hit it out of the park. We stop expecting greatness from them and we turn our attention to other kids because well, they will be ok, they won’t fail. Their averageness blinds us to what they could be and they begin to fall through the cracks because that untapped potential hasn’t been reached. They always get by, they are always there, they graduate, yet who knows what success they could have found. We missed them because they weren’t constantly on our radar, they were just average. 

Esly, on far left, leading the team in service.

I had a student-athlete named Esly. He was an average at best student, a below-average athlete but one of the best team guys you could ask for. Esly was easy to love and a guy that was always there, you could count on him. He never got to play but was just a solid member of our locker room on and off the field. You didn’t think of him when preparing for the season because he did not contribute to their wins on the field. You didn’t see him recognized for his academics as he was just average. He was so steady, he was easy to forget about. You just assumed he would be there, with a smile on his face, ready to give you all he had, even if it was never really all that good, just average. 

Esly was a junior my first year back in coaching after a decade of retirement forced on me by my alcoholism and recovery. I was eager to right my wrongs and I had learned so many valuable lessons as I leaned into being my authentic self and the most effective coach that I had ever been. I wanted this to mean something, I wanted above all else to make a difference. Esly would be a testament to that and I didn’t even realize it.

ALL IN and ALL TOGETHER……..

I had a motto for that team. ALL IN and ALL TOGETHER, and I was going to embody that for them each and every day. I did that, I gave it my all, I served those boys, all of them. We won a ton of games in the first year, servings of success that they had not tasted in years. It felt good to be honest, I was making a difference, the success spoke for itself. We continued that into year two. We were really creating a culture of champions on and off the field. But Esly reminded me of something at our end of the year banquet his senior year. All the success on the field paled in comparison to the success in the lives of those young men and in mine.

At the end of the evening he came up to me and with tears in his eyes, said “Thank you Coach, thank you for believing in me”. It moved me but I gave him the ol standard coach speak of, “it was my pleasure Esly, thanks for always being there for the team and doing your best”. He said, “no Coach, you don’t get it, its because of you I graduated, it’s because of you I will never give up trying to make my life matter, it’s because of you that I will be a great husband and father”. Choked up I said, “Esly I was just doing my job”. He said, “no Coach you did more, you saw me, you didn’t let me fall through the cracks”. 

…..Esly and I still talk today…….

That conversation has stuck with me. Esly and I still talk today, he usually calls when he needs relationship advice. But Esly was not even on my radar most days. Sure I loved him and served him but he was easy to miss because he was that average guy that was always there. You got comfortable knowing you didn’t have to worry about him doing anything bad or anything great, he was just there.

Esly is the poster child for one of the types of kids we miss most often. Those average kids, not bad, not great, always there and after a while lull us to sleep with mediocrity. I hope that my eyes are more wide open today. That just because a kid is average that I don’t pass them up but that I see them as an opportunity to unlock all that unlimited potential in them and like Esly I don’t allow them to fall through the cracks to just another average adult with an average life. 

The second type of student falling through the cracks……

The second type of student we let fall through the cracks is that kid who is polite, pleasant, but does absolutely nothing. At the beginning of the year we try every strategy known to teachers to get them motivated, yet nothing works. They are never a discipline issue, they may even participate in classroom discussion, yet when it comes to completing assignments, projects, tests, again nothing. We get tired of spitting in the wind and because they are not a problem in our classes we just let them slide right on by. It is easier to just let it go than to fight the battle daily where you know the end result will have gotten you or the student nowhere. This semester I had to face my own complicity in one of these students. His name was Louis. 

Louis was just like I described. Polite but seldom did much of anything. I had not even noticed how guilty I was of letting Louis fall through the cracks until his Special Ed. teacher came into my room in December to ask me how Louis did in class as preparation for his IEP. It hit me, I had no idea what he could or couldn’t do, I had let him slide, as long as he wasn’t disrupting anything. He missed a lot of days and I chalked it up to at least he didn’t keep anyone else from succeeding. How callous of me to just give up on him. I never stopped to find out WHY, he did nothing. Because he was polite, never a distraction or disruption I assumed he just didn’t want to. I felt extremely guilty and Louis would be coming into my next hour and I was ashamed and needed to try and connect with him. 

…..because I am dumb

After class started, I sat down beside Louis and just said, “hey buddy, you are not in trouble but I just want to know one thing, why do you just come in each day and do nothing. I know you can do something but to know what that something is I need you to try”. His head was down and with tears streaming down his face he just said, “I do nothing because I am dumb so why try”. I said, “Louis you are not dumb”. He looked up sharply and responded with an effort I had not seen, “Mr. Shu I am dumb, 5th grade told me I was dumb, my family says I am dumb, I am dumb , so why bother, why try, I will just fail because I am dumb”. That broke my heart. The past 4 months this kid has been sitting here with a smile on the outside but tears on the inside because he thinks he’s dumb. 

Right then and there we worked out a deal for him to catch up on some work. I modified a few things to help him find some instant success. We agreed that if he would just try that together we would be a team and we would make sure he would find success and not fall through the cracks. Today, Louis struggles some, but he is working. His desire to learn has been rekindled and he believes he can again. Together we are taking one day at a time and making progress. Louis isn’t dumb, no student is, he just stopped thinking he could and started believing he couldn’t.

I see you, I hear you, I value you.

No longer will I let a student slide, I will help them get better, together we will find a way and I won’t soon forget this lesson. To never give up on a kid, even when they have given up on themselves. Thank you Louis, for giving back to me, what I was not giving to you. I see you, I hear you, and I value you. You will not fall through the cracks. 

The last type of student we miss way too often is that quiet kid that achieves above average. That A and B student who besides excelling in class does not participate in much else. Makes good grades, seldom talks, and most days you would not even know they were there unless you hadn’t marked them present on your attendance. That cute kid who looks the part, looks fine, achieves, so we assume they have it all together.

Kam and I, reunited.

This one hits close to home for me because it was my daughter Kam. I made a lot of mistakes as her father. Addiction took me away from her for over 3 years and during the toughest time in her life, teachers unknowingly were letting her fall through the cracks. She was struggling, she didn’t know up from down, and all the while wondering what happened to my daddy. Her teachers saw her but were blind because she fit to a tee the above description. They didn’t see one obvious sign that they possibly should have because after all she had it all together or so they thought. 

Kamdyn has one of those personalities teachers love, an infectious smile, so I can see how her teachers thought everything was ok. She went to a private school, mom drove a Porsche, what could be so bad about that kind of life. But, I was heading into rehab for alcoholism. Neither Kam nor I had any idea of what was about to happen. Her mother was able to push through the courts while I was away an order to remove my parental rights. It was that moment that was my rock bottom but was also the catalyst to me becoming the man, father, husband, and educator I am today. It was a 3 year plus fight to get back into her life. I have no doubt there are scars left on my little angel who was my saving grace.

…..sitting alone at all the Daddy Daughter events.

A few months ago, I asked her what was the hardest part of daddy being gone. Her answer surprised me but left me hurting so bad for her. Her answer, sitting alone at all the events that were Daddy Daughter events. The donuts with dad days, bring your Dad to school to share his occupation day, her Dad in the audience at her music performances. As she shared with me she was bothered that her teachers never noticed that she sat alone for all those events. Her step father was too busy and she felt as though they didn’t see her, they didn’t hear her silent screams for comfort, they didn’t value her and especially her daddy…..WHERE WAS HE. 

To this day it is still hard for me to imagine her sitting there, smile on her face, yet broken and crying inside. It was the subtle things her teachers missed because they fell asleep because she was the quiet, achieving kid with a bright smile who seemed to have it all together but didn’t. At home her world had crumbled and few knew and no one stepped in to save her, they didn’t know she even needed saving.

I will not let a girl or boy go unnoticed….

Who is that kid in your class, my class, that seems to have it all together. Let’s not miss them because they seem fine, let’s give that extra effort to ask them if they are ok. To see how things are going, to connect, to build a relationship with them. These are kids who seem to have the world before them yet are not immune to life and its body blows that can devastate any child, any kid, any student. Kamdyn Preslee, I love you, and I can’t change not being there back then but I will always be there now. To honor that I will not let a little girl or boy go unnoticed at Donuts with Dad on my watch. 

Education is not an easy profession to enter into, especially in our society today. A lot is asked of teachers, coaches, and educators. We are stretched to the limit, we are tired, but let’s never forget why we do what we do. The kids. And let’s be aware why we can be distracted by those kids who are a mess from the moment you meet them and how we can take the easy road and zero in on the highfliers.

….the 3 types we miss most often.

Take a moment to find those students in your rooms that are the 3 types we miss most often. The average kids that are never too high or low to hit on our radar. Those polite kids that avoid work at all cost, who do nothing, so we let slide because its easier than fighting a daily battle we seem to always lose. And those quiet, achieving kids, that look like they have it all together.

Some of our students need help, need services, they are easy to spot. We have developed a safety net so they do not fall through the cracks. But what about the ones we miss, the ones for whatever reason we don’t see. What happens to them? In 2022, let’s open our eyes. Let’s challenge one another, ourselves to see the Esly’s, the Louis’s, the Kamdyn’s. We are on the front lines and kids need us. We can’t save them all but together we can do a better job of making sure students are not falling through the cracks.  

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