The Billy Joel song “Shades of Grey” says, “Black and White was so easy for me, but shades of grey are the colors I see.” There was a day when I was very certain about the decisions I made. I was sure I was right all the time and I didn’t lose any sleep over the things I did on a daily basis because the world was black and white. These days I wring my hands a lot more and I sit up at night pondering the impact of the things I do and say because shades of grey are the colors I see.
I have always striven to be fair in my classroom. I think all of us as teachers try to be fair and yet I am guessing most of us have had students or parents who have accused us of not being fair at some point. Those moments weigh on me in a way that they didn’t used to these days. Frequently when someone feels they haven’t been treated fairly it is because they believe they weren’t treated the same as someone else. That’s where it gets tricky. Is fair the same as equal? Of course it isn’t.
A large part of my professional development in recent years has been about differentiation. As a whole, I’m not sure that we music teachers are particularly good at differentiation. I do my best, but it’s difficult. The 2014 marching band season has just started and I spend a lot of time asking students to look and sound exactly the same as the student next to them. For our marching band to look good we all have to look the same. How do I differentiate on the marching band field? When I’m in front of my jazz band how do I differentiate the tonguing of 8th notes? A great deal of the time I am looking for my students to sound and look the same. So, how do I differentiate? I have to admit that I’m not sure. While I know that differentiation is very important maybe the music classroom is one of those places where the unified expectation of performance creates an opportunity for some students to rise to level of peers that they normally lag behind. Maybe. Maybe I should be looking for more ways to differentiate my instruction for my students. Maybe.
Shades of grey (on a side note, I googled “Shades of Grey,” assuming I would find the Billy Joel song immediately…apparently some book has been written about “50 Shades of Grey” that is pretty popular…I’ll have to check it out) are what I see these days. I believe in high standards for all of my students and yet I know that each student’s understanding of high standards and their individual ceiling in relation to high standards is very different. The Secretary of Education came out this week and more or less said that our special needs students should be expected to meet the same expectations as all other students. Is that fair? Is it fair to our special education (and classroom) teachers to hold them accountable for students with significant special needs to have to meet the same expectations as their peers who don’t have special needs? Most importantly, is it fair for those special needs students to be expected to meet those standards? It seems that the Secretary is making the case that it is more important for things to be equal than it is for them to be fair. I want ALL of my students to meet high expectations (both mine and theirs), but I recognize that in order to be fair to them I have to acknowledge that my students aren’t all the same. They come to me with so many different sets of skills and with so many different levels of talent. My job is to help them get better. It might be hard to measure (so we create some unique assessments some times), it may be hard for them all to keep up (so we slow down and provide supplemental instruction sometimes), and it may be hard if we don’t always succeed (so we teach them that it is about the journey and not the destination).
I don’t know any educators who don’t want to be fair (I really tried to think of one and couldn’t come up with any). I don’t think my son would mind if I told you that he doesn’t always get A’s, he hasn’t always sat first chair, he hasn’t always made the varsity team, and he hasn’t always been selected for the special clubs or honors groups. Is that fair? It hasn’t always seemed fair to me as a parent or to him as a student, but I don’t think that anyone was trying to be unfair. Life doesn’t unravel the same way for everyone. His path will be different than the kid who makes the Varsity team in their first attempt. My son is a talented and smart young man, but most importantly he is a good person. We all learn something when we are knocked down and forced to get up and try again. The key is that second part, to get up and try again. Try it differently and maybe even try a little harder. Just be sure to get up.
So, I am going to do my best to differentiate in my classroom, even when there are lots of educational leaders who seem to believe that my value as a teacher hinges only on whether my students can all pass the same test over the same limited set of skills. I promise I’ll be as fair as I can. I believe that if I can find a way to not only be passionate, but also be compassionate, that my students will know that I care about their progress. I also believe that it is important to share with my students that equal doesn’t always mean fair. I will be the most fair when I see the shades of grey and not just the black and the white.