Something I stress in my teaching is teacher-student communication. From day one, I tell them to remember to speak up if they EVER need help with something, have a special need or concern, or need to let me know about what’s going on in their lives. As I tell them, I’m willing to bend over backwards to get them what they need, but I need to know what that is first. Trust and respect are two other things that I often talk about. I try to do more than “give the respect speech” but to truly demonstrate and expect a high level of respect and a willingness to trust.
When I get disillusioned, though, I sometimes start to give up on those ideals.I start to think, “Why should I care?” And that’s a dangerous thing. I was starting to feel that way a little bit last weekend, after reading some disheartening student responses–one of my seniors, Deshaun, had written two detailed poems about how much he hates my class, wishes he could be back with his former teacher, and thinks school (with the emphasis, again, on my class) is a giant waste of time.
While normally immaturity doesn’t get to me, this incident hit my heart for some reason. It made me so angry. “Why,” I asked myself, “Am I spending hours assessing these students who don’t give a damn about me or what we’re learning? What a waste of MY time.” After being miffed for a few minutes, I decided I’d take a trustful approach, and that I would tell this student honestly and openly about how I felt. I wrote him back a paragraph, where I said something to the effect of… “I’m really sorry that you dislike my class so much. I know what it’s like to be stuck in a class missing the preferred style of a former teacher. Obviously, I can never be Ms. L. But please tell me what I can do to make English 12 bearable for you, otherwise it will be a long, l-o-n-g year for both of us. P.s. While it might not seem like it, I do have feelings. Imagine how I feel when I’m logging hours grading papers and this is what I get. Ouch!” While part of me felt weird being so open with a student (maybe it was more professional to just ignore it?), I really believe that one cannot teach without solid rapport or relationships. So I left it at that, and decided to hand it back to him.
On Monday morning, I ran into Deshaun as he came in to school. Having heard from another teacher that joking is a good technique to use with him, I smiled and yelled after him, “Deshaun!”
“Huh?” He said, turning around to face me. “What?”
I put my hand on my hip and cocked my head. “Why you such a hater?” I asked him.
“A hater?” He broke a small smile.
“Yeah,” I said, looking stern now, “What’s with you writing on all your assignments about how much you hate me and my class?!”
“Oh, Ms. H! I didn’t mean that stuff… I was just playin’. That’s just what I do.”
“Oh, all right,” I said, hesitantly. Then I added, “Well, just know that if you’re for real, we can talk about it.” Later that day, I handed back the anti-Ms. H poems with my note. I felt kind of silly for getting so worked up, but I still wasn’t sure if Deshaun was just trying to appease me face to face. Who knew if he would even read what I had to say.
The following morning, as class was wrapping up, I was getting some things sorted on my desk before the bell, and I heard a gentle, “Ms. H?” I looked over–no, up–to see Deshaun, with his 6’5″ frame, wide shoulders, and crazy mohawk, towering beside me. “Yes?” I said, noticing the concerned look beaming out of his dark brown eyes.
“I just wanted you to know that when I wrote those things on my papers, I was just joking around. And I really didn’t mean to hurt you. I just like being sarcastic and playing around, but that’s my way of saying that I do like your class. Trust me, if I didn’t like you, you’d know already. So I’m sorry that I made you feel bad. I like your scarf.”
“Thanks, Deshaun,” I said, “I just wanted to make sure. I’ve been in that situation where I’m stuck in a class I hate, so I didn’t want to be responsible for making you feel that way, but I’m glad to hear that you do like the class. Thanks so much for communicating with me.” I was floored… and relieved.
Later that week, I had a “class meeting” with my seniors where I opened a Real Conversation about what we can do as a class (and what I can do as a teacher) to make this sometimes-rowdy group a more respectful, effective, and welcoming place. I thought it might be a train wreck, but instead they really responded to that opportunity. Many of them came forth with both honest frustrations and excellent suggestions, and we came to the conclusion that we’d all work harder to become “more of a family.” I was so proud of all of us, working together, like real people should, instead of going through the motions of coming and leaving by the bell, unconcerned about the interpersonal realities of a classroom. My biggest point was, “I will be real with you if you are real with me. We need to trust each other. The more I can trust you, the more freedom I can give you. Let’s get better together.”
It takes guts to be honest. But I’m proud of the fact that both my students and I are learning how to take that risk, because it really, truly pays off.