“Well YOU have no problems because YOU have all the GOOD kids”
Look, I have no problem recognizing the sweet deal that is my current job. I love getting to work with students who care deeply about their work and learning. But in the last ten years, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time teaching students who’s current life situation makes a typical high school course completely irrelevant. While many teachers may give these kids many names, they always share one thing in common: they have something in life way bigger than F=ma. While in that role I had to be an adult to connect with, first and foremost. You could argue that this is the job of any teacher, but trust me on this one: if you’ve only worked with motivated kids from solid, affluent homes…you have no. idea.
What does it take and how does it affect the classroom?
- TRUST: I cannot begin to describe the lack of trust some of these kids have. When every adult has failed on them, they don’t trust you to be there or stick around. What does that mean for the classroom? Your expectations/procedures/plans are everything. They can see right through your inconstancies. Where my AP kids might run me over for it and make demands to help themselves, or accuse me of not knowing what I’m doing, the “unmotivated” kid sees yet another adult who can’t stand by their word. If you can’t keep your calendar straight, why should they trust you at all? If they don’t trust you the classroom is an unsafe learning environment for them and it’s fight or flight. I’ve seen both the fight and the flight, which generally means shutting down before we’ve even started.
- FRIENDSHIP AND EQUITY: If you can gain their trust, the next step is to foster a friendship. Getting to really know these kids is so important. When you get to know them, they start opening up. But be ready. Cause you’re probably going to hurt deeply and cry for them. But here’s the other thing, you know this cartoon?You’ve seen it before. Yeah, that’s important in the classroom too. I had a kid who worked third shift every night. He was dead set on graduating, but there was no way in the world he was going to get his homework done or stay awake during a lecture. I couldn’t penalize him. Working a job out of necessity is the most common thing I run into when it comes to students trying to make it. I’ve had kids with bum alcoholic dads, older sisters raising their younger siblings, and students kicked out of their residence and forced to live outside of town. Folks…NONE of this is their fault. This is about kids trying to do whatever they can muster as the right thing to do who still love their parents, even if their parents are the worst, and still want their parents to love them. Because that’s what kids do. They need someone who is proud of them, they need someone who will tell them “you can keep going” but they also need someone who can say “I see you have a lot on your plate, let’s find a way to make this work”
- PATIENCE Yeah, it sounds like the canned response. But let me tell you, you won’t believe the amount of patience it take. I’ve decided that teachers need to read parenting books. In one of my favorites it’s emphasized that as a parent you need to be sure you “respond, don’t react” to your child’s behaviors. Along those same lines, from another book is “chase the why”. It goes something like this in the parenting book. You’ve come from from a long day of work, you’re going through the mail, decompressing from the day, and you see your kid jumping on top of the table yelling. Most of us would react: Get down from there now! And when our kid inevitably says “no!” the situation escalates. You know how it ends, and it doesn’t end pretty. The same thing happens in our classrooms. A student isn’t doing the “correct student behavior” so we snap. If they don’t stop, we get irate, then come the referrals and the consequences. There’s an alternative though: responding. With your kid it involves first and foremost a personal connection, often a physical one, in order to connect with that primal part of the brain. Next, getting to the root of the “issue” by talking to your kid. We have to do this with our students. No, I’m not saying we’re hugging our students that are flipping out…but we certainly can’t explode or escalate the tantrum, and certainly not in front of the whole class. So we take a deep breath, we get close to the kid, we bring our voice down low, and we show our student that we care for them first. It’s freakin’ HARD. But it pays off in the long run.
I was originally going to write this about small successes I saw today in my non-AP physics course. I’m still trying to build a culture of trust, and I saw the sparks today for the first time. But I think I’ll save that for another day.