*Names have been changed
I was always taught that if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. So when I decided eight years ago that I wanted to serve young people, help them find their voices, tell their stories, and give them the benefit of my experiences as a writer, I knew I wanted to be a great teacher. Back then, my idea of a great teacher was someone who studied her subject with respect and passion, who held students to high standards, and who expected the absolute best from those students. The greatest teachers I had embodied each of those qualities and I wanted to be like them.
My administrators encouraged this. They talked to me about THE TESTS and how the students needed to be able to score at least proficiently, and how the sophomore year was particularly important since they needed to pass the English II test in order to graduate. Because of the high stakes associated with the THE TESTS, administrators and colleagues extolled the virtues of being a tough classroom manager. The messages they conveyed — both overtly and covertly — included:
- Don’t let the kids get away with anything.
- Teachers should have zero tolerance for class disruption.
- Teachers with noisy classrooms aren’t doing their jobs.
But I sensed there was a disconnect. While those students who were naturally quiet, compliant and studious loved my classes, too many kids who live outside that box were chafing under those standards. Students would get angry when I corrected them, even if I did so kindly and without making accusations. Multiple redirections worked with some students, but — no matter how gracefully I delivered them — continued to gall others.
I sought solutions to this problem, and theories to explain it. One theory, I told myself, was that those kids were just immature. They were too young to realize the importance of what I was teaching them. They were more interested in socializing than in learning. Some veteran teachers validated this paradigm with their complaints about how so many of the students these days are broken. They come from families who don’t care. Their lives have been messed up by drugs, divorce, despair. They don’t value education — as if these explanations made everything OK.
But I knew deep inside something was wrong with this ideology and this knowledge was starting to eat away at my resolve to be that tough classroom manager.
I started working with other veteran teachers who encouraged me to be more compassionate, more graceful. But I was still uncertain, confused, afraid of failure. Where was the line? Where was the difference between being a great teacher with high standards that the kids love because they know she loves them, and being a lousy teacher with no standards who the kids like because they can get away with whatever they want? I felt as if I was walking around in the dark, bumping into walls at every turn, and never sure exactly what I was aiming for and hoping I didn’t take a header down a hidden flight of stairs.
As I continued to struggle, I caught glimpses of my kids enjoying my lessons, and I had opportunities to sit down and talk to them in small groups about important topics. I saw what was in their hearts in their writings. I knew there was more to teaching than what I was seeing. The kids craved connection, but I held back, only displaying the emotional depth of Spock, because that’s what I thought being a professional teacher was about. I let my co-teachers play the nice guy, while I played the get-your-crap-done-because-I-know-you-can guy. I didn’t know how to bridge the gap between high expectations and letting the kids know that I love them.
Then this summer, my principal gave me permission to focus on building relationships. He told me about a retired teacher who had such a good rapport with the kids that after testing, they’d leave the room crying, upset they’d disappointed her, if they didn’t do well. My principal was able to ask me to focus on building those kinds of relationships because my juniors no longer had to take THE TEST. I could work on getting to know them, and then my efforts to get to know them could trickle down to my other classes. (For the record, I only believe in trickle-down-theory in relationships, not in economics. Just saying.)
So at the beginning of this year, with my principal’s counsel at heart, and a vision of getting to know and understand my students, I decided to spend more time listening to my young padawans. With this goal in mind, I began each day with a quickwrite, which I’d learned about at the Oklahoma Writing Project Summer Institute. Students would write to a relevant prompt that I’d selected (often based on what I heard happening in their lives and their conversations) for five minutes, then share with their table partner, and then some would share with the class. I, too, would respond to the prompt, and the students would often ask me to share what I had written. I used these quickwrites to not only help build up my students’ writing stamina, but to help them find their voices and tell their stories. I wanted them to see that they each have a voice, that what they say is important, that they can work together to build each other up, and that they can build a community — a family even — through their writing.
I started to see that, over the years, I have gotten in my own way with my focus on curriculum, standards, and preparing for THE TEST. But I still couldn’t figure out how to bridge the gap between my desire to nurture, encourage, and edify my students and my need to manage my classroom.
That all changed a few months ago when one of my students, Joshua,* suffered a shoulder injury on the football field. He’d had surgery and returned to school with the arm he normally writes with in a sling. On a normal day, this young man is unabashedly boisterous, perspicacious, and enjoys English class. He likes to write, and loves to talk. He is a good leader who will happily encourage his classmates to listen when they’re all talking and I’m trying to get their attention. Yet, as I mentioned, this young man loves to talk and has lots of energy, so he frequently gets sidetracked chatting with his table partner or bounding across the room for a Kleenex, or checking out the books I have sitting on my table, or asking if he can eat the piece of cake I am trying to talk myself out of finishing. (Yes, please make the cake disappear.)
He also takes his time when writing, carefully crafting his words on paper in cursive handwriting. So when he mentioned he couldn’t use his right hand, my advice to write left-handed resulted in a painfully slow process that was frustrating even for me to watch. He tried valiantly, and respectfully expressed his frustration at the process, so I knew I needed to figure something else out for him. Fortunately, Google Voice Typing, a Chromebook from the computer lab, and a USB microphone donated by Mrs. Waters English, LLC (and paid for by teachers from around the world) solved that problem.
On the day he returned after a subsequent surgery, I was handing out textbooks in class. The idea, since I pull my materials from Teachers Pay Teachers, the Internet, or create them myself, was for the students to put the textbooks in their lockers and keep them there so that the stack of books on my shelf wouldn’t topple over on someone’s head. Really, they were saving someone’s life by textbook sitting. I’d asked two kids to give everyone an orange literature book, and then handed a clipboard with paper to the young woman sitting at the end of the row . I instructed everyone to write their name on the paper, along with the number of their textbook, and then pass the clipboard down the row, around the bottom of the U-shaped desk arrangement, and up the other side.
I vividly remember standing on the inside of the U, showing two of the young women where to find the number on their textbooks, when I noticed the aforementioned young man get up out of his seat, pick up the textbook he’d been handed with his left hand, and bound around the outer edge of the room to where the young women were filling out the paperwork. He sat his textbook down right between them and said, “Hey, will you write my name down?”
At that moment, I experienced a sense of frustration. Why was this kid up out of his seat? Again! He was supposed to wait at his desk until the clipboard arrived at his location, where he could ask one of his buddies to write his name. I lifted my hand to point at his seat and had opened my mouth to say, “Will you go sit….” when the metaphorical light bulb went on over my head.
In that very precise moment in time, it hit me: He is doing exactly what I told him to do. And what the hell kind of teacher tells a kid to sit down and shut up for doing what she asked, but just in his own way?!
I put my hand down, closed my mouth, and just watched the room. I wasn’t teaching a lesson, the kids were chatting at a reasonable level, looking for the numbers in the textbooks, or just patiently awaiting their turn. Someone might have even been reading for pleasure. So the enthusiastic young man wasn’t disrupting class. And as someone pointed out to me once when I shared this story, he was actually showing a sense of innovation in how to get the job done. And sure enough, once one of the young women had added his name and textbook number to the list, he worked his way back around to his seat.
Fast forward to semester test week. As I have done the past two years, I asked my students four reflective questions to help me understand what they have learned about themselves in my class and what I can do to be a better teacher. One of the questions asked was what grade the students think they deserve. This young man’s answer showed more insight into what a classroom should really be about than I have had in six years of teaching (and way more insight than some of our education “leaders” have shown in decades of disrupting education):
“I don’t really know what grade I deserve in here because the only thing that makes me different from anybody else is my attitude. I truly believe all of us can pass this class with A’s and B’s, but I see more to it than just a letter on a paper. I see this as something that we grow together with this class. It’s more than just a grade to me. It’s a family of people that are all different, but yet are still brought together because of the mindset you have when you write. It shows the real you.” (Reprinted with permission.)
As I ponder my epiphany, the young man’s insight, what this all means to me as a teacher, and what my own shortcomings have meant to my kids as I’ve tried to teach and nurture them, I think back to all those young people who were good-hearted, fun-loving, bright, and just doing what I’d asked them to do, but in their own unique way… and I basically told them to sit down and shut up.
- I think about Becca who was defiant and angry at first, but very intelligent and a natural leader (for good or for evil) among her peers.
- I think about Demetria who wanted to be a lawyer, and who loved trying to argue with me during our first semester together, but who had great insight into the topics we discussed and demonstrated strong leadership skills.
- I think about Carlton, who had such a strong need to talk, he’d chat outloud with himself (which, in his book, did not count as actual talking…), and always needed to show off for his buddies, but could sit down with me and another teacher and share with us about living with his grandparents, and missing his mother who was working on the East coast, and his father who was in prison.
- I think about Connor, a freshman who suffered a career-ending football injury and only wanted to throw spit wads, paper airplanes, and insults in my poetry class. His grandparents had no idea how to help him, and neither did I. He was in my class during my first year of teaching, and I had no idea how to connect with him.
- I think about McKenna who thought she knew how to run a classroom better than I did (perhaps she was right), and who spent a whole semester fighting me on just about everything I did. But who, after a rather tense parent teacher conference, became an excellent student leader in her class.
I am ashamed, and deeply saddened that I did not figure all of this out sooner. I feel like I’ve hurt so many students by focusing on curriculum and standards instead of on them.
I am sorry.
I wish I could find each of you and apologize in person. And if you want me to do that, you can reach me via Twitter or my Facebook page and I’ll be happy to buy you a coffee at Starbucks and tell you how sorry I am, how valuable you are, how important your voice is, and how you need to listen to people who build you up. Don’t let cranky old teachers — or anyone else — tell you any different. I will probably cry, so you might want to bring Kleenex.
Teachers, I still stand by my statement that if you’re going to do something, you might as well do it right. But you also have to realize that what you think is right at a given time might not be. You don’t know what you don’t know. And sometimes your way if doing something isn’t always the right way for every kid in your class. Keep trying and keep seeking the truth. Trust yourself. Trust your students. Now, go tell your kids you love them — and then listen to them!