>As I look back on the mayhem and marvels of my first semester as a teacher, the theme of expectations is significant. These four and a half months have been full of expectations exceeded, disappointed, and completely blown out of the water.
The relationships I’ve built with my students have far exceeded what I anticipated, though I’ve always wanted a high level of trust and even love with my little people. I started the year much like I started our time in Taiwan three years ago: controlling, condemning, and completely closed off to my students. And just as in Taiwan, this broke me rather quickly because I am just not made to operate that way (even though it would probably be easier if I were!). During one of our new teacher meetings at the beginning of the year, someone mentioned that the way you (the teacher) feel around and about the students mirrors the way they feel in your classroom. I felt scared and threatened, so they probably did too. How, then, could I reduce my own tension level and pass that peace to my kids? Therapy and medication helped a lot, but I also had to make the very conscious decision to meet them where they were and help them grow into a better version of themselves that we envisioned together, rather than stand back and dangle some unattainable goal before them and write them off when they failed. Did I lower my expectations in terms of behavior and achievement? Admittedly so, but I think in doing so I was able to express that I accepted who they were even as I wanted to see who they could be and help them get there.
On the other hand, even these changed expectations often led to disappointment in one way or another. The quality of work submitted was on average mildly atrocious. More painfully, students got suspended, expelled, sent to juvie, and because I let myself care, a part of me got lost with them every time. The students at my school come from a completely different culture from mine, with different expectations for progress and punishment. Ruby Payne discusses these differences in A Framework for Understanding Poverty and I struggled a lot internally with how much about our students I really believed we as middle-class majority teachers ought to change. But as much as I love them, as much as I want to honor their way of life because I think all lifestyles have value, not just the “right” ones…I know they won’t make it in the world with their present levels of irresponsibility, apathy, disrespect, and learned helpfulness. That they have other redeeming qualities like blunt honesty and fearless loyalty does not negate the flaws. As a teacher, my goal is to develop the strengths in a way that compensates for the weaknesses. I’m trying something next semester that I hope will mitigate behavior problems before they start: class officers who, by demonstrating their own CRED, earn the privilege of monitoring their classmates. Plenty of my kids have had way too much experience with the criminal justice system, but I wonder if this might now empower them to make better choices.
And then there were the absolutely unexpected:
a student’s violent death in the second week of school, the sheer noise and chaos of the halls, 17-year-olds with 3-year-old babies, children who get free lunches but buy Xboxes with money earned Lord-knows-how;
the devotion of B and M to their jailbird boyfriends, the raw honesty of personal notes and journal entries, the marriage proposals (3 by my last count), the growth of N and the transformation of my 6/7 class from squabbling cellmates to family, the dancing, the laughter, the teacher falling in the sink
I suppose that they will never stop disappointing me, but that is only because I cannot stop caring, and for now that is a trade that I am willing to make–no matter who or where I am teaching.