February 08, 2006

Don't take it personally?

What are appropriate Teacher/Student relationships? I'm not referring to the obviously inappropriate Mary K. type. Believe it or not, I was told before the first day of my first contract job, "don't touch the kids." Literally, no physical contact at all. I could appreciate the intention, but the statement insulted me. Teachers are trying to "touch the lives" of students, and yet, we are denied any type of physical contact? A high-five, or a pat on the back can be a tremendous boost to the self-esteem of a struggling student. But the world we teach in restricts us to our personal bubble space, never to invade or be invaded. So sad.

Yet we endure and press on working diligently to positively change the students we teach. How effective are we? How do we measure our effectiveness? I teach elective course that live and die on the number of students enrolled. Fail too many, and there are not enough students to maintain a complete schedule the following year. I end up teaching English 9. However, there are standards to meet, and content to deliver, so I do my best to hold on to as many students as possible. Sometimes that means fighting to hold on to kids that should be let go to pursue other interests.

Something changed in me this year. Was I less tolerant, or more practical? Somehow I lost my patience with students who just refused to follow through on their work. You know the ones: they show up occasionally, do some of the work with a lack-luster attitude, and then want accommodations when their scores don't merit a passing grade. Perhaps it's a sign that I too need a break from teaching, or perhaps a career change. We all feel the discouragement of students who fail to succeed, those who we cannot or do not help or change in ways immediately tangible. Perhaps at some point they may turn around because of some influence we had on them along the way. Or perhaps our jobs are only just that, jobs.

An experience that is unique (I think) to high school elective and extra-curricular programs is the dynamic of working with the student who thinks the program revolves around them. It's a nightmare if you've ever dealt with this personality type. It happened last year to a colleague of mine with one of the clubs she advises. This year it happened to me. The president of the club dovetailed into my advanced class quit at the semester. He quit for what I can only assume was a disappointment with the curriculum, or a personality conflict with me. He seems to be one of those kids who is clearly talented and able, but unwilling to take on a leadership position, an instead becomes a negative force among students. Not good for the other students, not good for the program, and not good for teacher. But it was unfortunate because I genuinely liked and enjoyed the kid. I've known his family for years and even taught his older sibling in another subject. When he dropped the class I think he genuinely believed that there were other disgruntled students who would follow him. None did.

When students don't like our assignments or our teaching style should we take it personally? Don't we have their best interest in mind? Of course. Some teachers give their students survey's to gather data about their courses. A good idea early in the teaching career, but after a few years experience, you know exactly what works and what doesn't work, or whether or not you are being effective in the classroom. Student opinion is important, sure. They should enjoy the courses we teach, and they should have fun while learning. But there is a reason that curriculum is standards driven and why teachers, not students determine delivery technique and grading rubrics. We are the adults; they are the children.

This week I was openly challenged by a student on the validity of an assignment. Of course we should have a clear justification when asked, "why are we learning this?" but this student took it a step further and questioned the assignment's legitimacy. I actually had to explain that the students would have to trust me because I was a professional, I had experiences they did not, and I understood the importance of the assignment when they could not yet. I felt like screaming, "Shut up, sit down, and do what I tell you to." (The old, "children should be seen and not heard," approach is sounding better and better as I grow older.)

One of my weakness as a teacher is that I am not emotional enough with my students. I don't get angry often, and I rarely raise the level of my voice unless I am lecturing to a large group and need to be heard. Sometimes kids need to know that you are serious and that you care and sometimes that can only be communicated through appropriate displays of emotion. But don't go too far. And if a student rejects your efforts, if they drop your class, or quit your program, don't take it personally. It's not about you. It's their problem, not yours. Adults are naturally more mature than students, but we are still people, and sometimes, our students hurt our feelings. Especially during those weaker moments brought on by fatigue and stress. A rude comment, or a thoughtless action taken by a disturbed student directed towards a tired teacher can send him or her reeling. And sometimes it's hard to recover.

But recover we must, and recover we will. The appropriate role of the teacher is to guide and instruct, not to befriend or to seek the approval of the students. On those days when you feel like giving up, throwing in the towel, or finding another occupation, just remember that those little darlings are adults in training and regardless of what they do or say that makes you crazy, don't take it personally.

Please post your comments below.

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like you had a rough week.
    Do you think it is getting harder to reach/teach students now because they have grown up in a time of immediate gratification? Think video games, internet and parents giving in to avoid the arguments.

    You sound like an excellent, thoughtful instructor. I think what you are describing is what is happening throughout the high schools of America. It appears that you have their best intentions in mind, to help them become adults.