By now, you have probably read or heard this story:
This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.
I chuckle a little everytime I read this because it is one of those “silly truths.” We have seen this in action in almost any place where people and work converge. Sometimes it’s ridiculous, like my family letting mail pile up in our curbside mailbox or not getting the car washed for months. But a few months ago, after a conversation with a dear teacher friend, I realized that it was sadly playing out in a nearby school.
My friend told me about a group of students that stood out to everyone in the suburban middle school where she taught. She stated that in her school - which was predominantly white and Asian - there was a group African American students that seemed “out of control.” In the lunchroom, they sat by themselves, talking loudly, “arguing” with one another and disregarding the lunchroom rules, like sitting in their seats. In the hallways, they called out openly to each other down the hallway, used inappropriate language, and made no hurry to get to class.
Her colleagues who had them as students stated that in class, they generally did not participate in group or paired discussions unless it was with each other. Their teachers felt like nothing they did worked for “these kids.” When they were in class together, they disregarded their teachers and other students, joking around with each other. The principal and assistant principal disciplined them often and called home frequently regarding their behavior. My friend ended this description with “Somebody’s gotta do something.”
“What about you?” I asked her.
“What about me?” she responded.
“ You see there’s a problem because we’re talking about it.”
“Yeah, but they’re not my students! Somebody else will have to deal with them. They’re not my problem.”
My friend’s response invoked a host of challenges, primarily the question of responsibility. In this situation, whose responsibility is it to address the experiences that this group of marginalized African American students was having at this school? Whose responsibility is it to ensure that marginalized students actually feel like they belong in a school environment?
Is it the principal’s job to establish an environment that welcomes this small group of kids even though the majority of other students seem to do pretty well? Should the teachers engage kids that appear to not want to be engaged? What about the teachers who do not have this group of students in class? Are they responsible for creating a welcoming school environment, in addition to their duties to the kids that they do teach? And what about central administration? Should the superintendent make sure there are plenty of opportunities for a marginalized community to develop and weigh in on policies and hiring? The answer to all of those questions is yes.
For a group of students who exist on the fringes of the school community, it is the responsibility of all of the professionals in the school to make them feel safe, welcome and invited. Kids who do not feel safe or valued do not learn - at least not what we want them to learn. They come to learn that the school doesn’t want them there, and school just isn’t the place for them. They learn this when they aren’t enthusiastically greeted when they come to school. They learn this when their interactions with their teachers are limited to directions and reprimands. They learn this when other teachers in the hallway stare at them but greet the kids behind them. They learn this when their interactions with the principal and assistant principal are mostly discipline meetings and reminders to follow the rules.
Like any worthwhile effort, it takes resolve and a team approach to ensure that all kids feel welcome. (Ironically, it is this same collective behavior of adults that leads to students feeling marginalized.) Ultimately, each leader, each educator has a separate yet equally significant role to play in ensuring equitable academic and social experiences for all students. In essence though Somebody expects Anybody to do it, Everybody now must do what Nobody did previously.