Monthly Archives: December 2010

>"Little" Victories

>One of the [many] occupational hazards of teaching they don’t tell you about in college is how difficult it can be to have your success be at least partially measured through the performance of other people, specifically little, loosey-goosey people who may not be quite as invested in their own well-being as you are.  In many other professions, you work hard for better results and you are rewarded.  As a teacher, you can pour your heart and soul into a class, but if a student doesn’t buy into it, neither of you will have much of anything to show for it.  My mentor showed me how relationship precedes achievement, at least with children of poverty: show a child you are unconditionally in their corner, and he will jump through flaming hoops for you.  (The converse holds true as well.)

Right before we let out for winter break, the juniors and seniors got their October OGT scores back.  Two boys from my OGT class immediately bounced into my room to tell me they had passed, and I wish I’d had a camera to capture their faces.  I wrote on the board in big letters, “WE PASSED!” and invited students to sign their names under it.  As happy as I was for them, though, I was equally disappointed for those who didn’t, including all of my seniors.  I was particularly crushed about Boris and Natasha, who not only didn’t pass but actually scored worse.  Both are in my OGT class, both are very smart, and both had spent a lot of time in our school’s resource center–with my permission during our class time–working with the tutors there.  So I don’t really know what happened there, but I think we need to have a conversation when we return from break.

I’ve always been good at what I do (with the notable exception of sports) and it hasn’t been easy for me to adjust my ideas about success without feeling like I’m copping out.  But then I realize the true value of the so-called “little” victories.  The fact that my students came to tell me means, 1) they felt like I helped them; 2) they knew I’d be happy (read: ecstatic) for them; 3) they wanted to make me proud, and I was.  To have developed that rapport (or at least some degree thereof) with 40+ little people in a strange new town in less than four months…that is quite a personal accomplishment for me given my pathological trust issues.  Which reminds me of the second point I meant to write about in my last post: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4:16b)  As I sat in church on Sunday pondering the idea of love without fear, and wondering whether I can really stay in a profession that chews me up for the sake of truly reaching a few, I suddenly realized, Isn’t that what Jesus did?  Then maybe I am not so far removed from God as I have often felt since moving, and that is comforting.

On a final note, I received an e-mail this morning from a student I had two years ago when we taught VBS in Taiwan, which was my first real teaching experience.  I met this girl at the first week of camp, in which a roomful of 20 fourth-graders (none of which spoke functional English) and two 6-hour days of teaching in 90-degree heat (sans air-conditioning) completely broke whatever pride I had in my own strength…to everyone’s benefit.  Once I let go of my need to be in control, we just had fun.  Anyway, one of the little girls wrote this to me, which I have roughly translated from the Chinese.

Teacher!  It has been two years.  I don’t know if you remember me? My name is Apple, how are you.  I am now in sixth grade and I will graduate.  When will you come back to Taiwan?  I hope you do not forget me.  I will always remember that dedicated-no-matter-what teacher: you!  Please don’t forget me!

One week.  Less than 40 hours spent with this little girl, and she remembers me two years later.  It is almost unbearably humbling.  And it makes all the lesson planning, sleepless nights, and spider bites (in Taiwan, at least)…so worth it.

>Crime and Punishment

>I’m finally getting around to writing about something that happened last week that really made me question my purpose and practice of teaching.  I’m glad I waited to write, though, because the message in church this Sunday really resonated with me and helped me process the whole incident.

One day at the beginning of the class, I had just started showing a video on evolution when I noticed that Blinky, Pinky, and Inky were still chattering.  My patience had been tested by similar behavior in the previous class, so I told them that if they had something to say, they needed to finish their conversation outside.  They took themselves outside the classroom with some chairs, and I turned my attention back to the remaining students.  After discussing an important point in the video, I went to check on my three little pigs.  They were still engrossed in their conversation, so I asked if they would like to return to class.  There was no response, so I left them to their business.  I checked again about ten minutes later, by which time Clyde had joined her counterparts (without having ever set foot in the classroom).  Again, a negative response.  The shortened period soon drew to a close, and by the time I saw my other students out the door, the Fab Four were gone.  Later I heard that they had appeared in the cafeteria before the bell sounded, telling the teacher on duty that I had let them out early.  I consulted our principal and she recommended that I write them up, which I did.

Fast forward a few days.  Inky and Pinky come sweeping into the room and Pinky announces that she is very upset with me.  I got my other students started on a magazine scavenger hunt and took Inky and Pinky and Clyde into the hall.  (Blinky was on a field trip.)  Pinky launched into a diatribe, accusing me of giving them a choice to return to class instead of a command, telling me I was too nice, and exhorting me not to be afraid of them.  (I told her I wasn’t afraid, although honestly I was a little just because Pinky herself can be so volatile.)  I repeated Pinky’s words back to her to make sure I understood, then pointed out that yes, I did give them a choice instead of a command, with the expectation that they would make a wise decision.  I admitted that maybe I had not been clear enough about the possible consequences of the choice, but stressed that I was not interested in bossing them around or, for that matter, punishing them.  We discussed how each of us could communicate better in the future, and I think it was at this point that Clyde said, “Miss Duann, I wish my mom and grandma were more like you.  You communicate good.”  I asked if we had reached mutual understanding; they said we had, and I agreed to talk with our assistant principal about the referral.

Did I do the right thing in letting them off the hook?  I struggled a lot with myself afterward, and normally I do not do very well at all with that sort of internal conflict.  (A rather fortuitously timed conversation helped keep me from completely screwing myself into the ceiling over it.)  Setting and enforcing expectations for classroom behavior is still something with which I struggle, and I know I need to work on my consistency and follow-through in this regard.  I admit that I’d rather be loved than respected, that my students are still squirrels but at least they are loyal squirrels.  I know well that these girls and many other students are fully capable of taking advantage of me…and somehow, I just want to trust that they won’t.  I told Pinky when she blustered about running over me in class, “But I’ve seen the best of you, Pinky, and that’s what I always remember.”  Maybe that’s naive, maybe I’m too idealistic to be a good teacher after all.  But I have to believe that there can be more than discipline based on pain and punishment.  There’s enough of that in the world, especially for these kids, and I refuse to be part of that.

On Sunday we studied 1 John 4 and while the entire passage spoke to my life, two verses stuck out. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”  I know my love is far from perfect, and one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is what it really means to love my students.  It’s not just feeding them cookies and passing out silly bandz.  It means loving them enough to truly prepare them for life after high school, which means teaching them how to show up to work on time, speak and act courteously, respect appropriate authority, see the bigger picture, understand the link between action and consequence.  I think that can be done while respecting my students as young adults and providing the safety they may not have known as children.  Now, just to figure out how…

>The Reason I Became a Teacher

>It has been a very long time since my last post, for a variety of reasons that I may or may not explain in passing as I work on processing this first semester.  But one of my resolutions for this next calendar year is to get back into a routine of blogging and journaling, both of which tend to drop off exponentially when I am going through a difficult time.  (And the past four months have been at times excruciating.)

I do want to share something that happened today which encapsulates my life as a teacher.  I wrote personal Christmas cards to all my students and gave them to my 6/7 biology class today.  (Attendance was so low in my other two classes due to PLAN testing, weather, and general ridiculousness that I decided to wait until tomorrow!)  They were pleasantly surprised to receive cards, but their reaction when they read their messages was priceless.  “I’m going to keep mine and put it in my room!”  “She said I have great potential!”  “What did she say about you?”

My supervisor told us early on in our program that every child needs just one person who is absolutely crazy about them.  In a school like mine, that person is often a teacher instead of a parent or family member, and that is ultimately why I am here.  I am here to be that child’s biggest fan; here to make her feel special because of who she is, not what she does; here to show him that he has the power to do anything, good or bad.  This is my life, and I’m thankful to be here.