A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 13 2009

Be a Teacher, But Be a Person, Too

While I can honestly admit that my pedagogy/instruction has been at somewhat less than an ideal level, I realize that a teacher needs to do much more than simply be a purveyor of knowledge.  In fact, after 5 weeks in the hot seat as a new teacher, I’m beginning to think that I haven’t chanelled enough energy into relating to my students outside of the classroom.  I haven’t been learning enough about my students’ interests, about their lives, and about their motivations.  I haven’t been a real person to them.

Let me say it again: it is so important to interact with students in an outside-the-classroom setting.  The past few weeks have made clear that students need real confirmation from teachers that they are not simple automatons giving lessons.  I alluded to this idea while talking about building street cred, but I’ve only now realized that it does make a difference.

After the jump, I’ll mention two anecdotes that illustrate how the outside-the-classroom interactions have helped the inside-the-classroom dynamic and how they have helped me understand my students better:

The first anecdote emerged unexpectedly, but resulted in a much stronger connection with a student.  MM–a talented, but emotionally-distraught young woman–asked me last Friday to write her college recommendation letter.  Because I had only known her for 4 weeks, I knew I had to sit down and find out more about her life.  After school one day, she came in and we put things like “making inferences” and “explaining author’s purpose” aside and simply discussed life (no way!).

MM was extremely candid and explained how her family fell apart two years ago when her father cheated on her mother and left the family.  Since that moment, her entire family struggled with depression.  She told me, furthermore, that, since her father had left, she had needed to work to support her mother and two younger brothers.  She told me she worked from 5-11pm five nights a week at the Best Buy right in the neighborhood.  She told me about the anxiety attacks she suffered, both in and out of school (this was corroborated by other teachers), that led to her being hospitalized.

But, she also told me that her father’s departure had changed her motivation in life.  She realized she had an obligation to succeed.  Since about a year ago, she has been a woman on a mission, determined to finish her high school education and proceed to her college one.  You see, no one in her family has even graduated from high school (forget college!).  When she walks across the stage and picks up her diploma in June, she will be setting a giant precedent for her family.  MM has had the perseverance to transform an extremely negative life experience into a positive outlook.

I’d seen the intense focus in her eyes in class–the way she is able to tune out the surrounding shouts of those who still seem uneager to engage in learning, the way she comes after class to pick up the work she missed because of problems at home–but, until our talk, had not known the underlying circumstances.

I thanked her for opening up to me.  All the puzzle pieces came together.  Coincidentally, a few nights later, as I frustratedly stumbled into the Best Buy at 9pm to find computer parts to fix my broken laptop, I found MM behind one of the checkout counters.  Somehow, we were able to deflect the awkwardness that might arise out of such an encounter. She maturely scanned my air duster and we continued talking about college and life.  As I picked up my bag, I bade farewell with “see you in class tomorrow morning?”  MM beamed a smile and said, “I’m tired, but I’ll try.”

I’m now confident that I can write a strong letter on her behalf.  How, after our talks, can I not?  The way she holds herself together and pushes through adversity, all while keeping a smiling face, is unbelievable.  She’s also asked me to help her with her application essay (which is–no surprise–about her father’s departure) and I’ve told her I will help in any way.

Sometimes, tossing DCPS 11th grade standards aside actually proves fruitful.

*****

My second story has roots in my desire to take the initiative to connect on a personal level with my students.  Just this morning, I woke up an hour earlier than usual so that I could cook some Korean BBQ for my first period students (who have been awesome).  Acknowledging that offering students home-cooked food is always a risky endeavor for a teacher, I also created an accompanying waiver intended to protect my neck while also adding some light humor to the morning.

When my students received the waiver, most immediately made motions to sign it.  However, I quickly stopped them and told them to read the text carefully.  As they read, they began chuckling, laughing and then ROFLing.  “Mr. K, you too funny!” The text should explain why:

WAIVER AND RELEASE OF LIABILITY FORM

I, the undersigned, wish to eat Mr. K’s Korean BBQ.  I understand that the offered food contains beef, soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, spring onions, white onions, sugar, salt and vinegar.  In consideration of participating in the eating process, I hereby agree as follows:

  1. To waive my right to hold Mr. K responsible for the food I am about to eat, even if anything unusual happens to me (e.g. I get sick or I become addicted to Korean BBQ).
  2. To still go out and try Korean food at a restaurant even if I do not enjoy the taste of the food (Mr. K is not a fantastic cook, but promises that Korean food is normally delicious).
  3. To only take a little bit for my first serving, so that others in the class can have a taste (sharing is caring!).

I HAVE READ AND UNDERSTOOD THIS AGREEMENT, AND I AM AWARE THAT BY SIGNING THIS AGREEMENT I AM WAIVING CERTAIN RIGHTS IN MR. K’s CLASSROOM.  I AM AWARE, TOO, THAT I MIGHT KEEP BEGGING MR. K TO BRING MORE FOOD, MORE OFTEN. I UNDERSTAND THAT MR. K WILL BRING IN FOOD ONLY IF I AM WORKING HARD AND GETTING BRIGHT.

Signed this _____ day of _______, 20__.

Signature of student: _______________

I guarantee you that, no matter how many times I saw my students rolling their eyes, they see me in a different, more positive, light.  They realize that even though I am a “strict” teacher (oh, yes, I love being called that!), I can have my light-hearted moments, too; I’m all business all the time except when I’m not.

I know this worked because even my most unruly student–he recently got out of jail–thanked me for the BBQ and kept his behavior to an “acceptable” level (still not under full control).  And, when the period ended, students filed out while saying many more “thank yous” and “have a good weekends” than usual.

*****

The lessons drawn from these two anecdotes is simple: the relationships that one builds outside the classroom will flow into the classroom.  Therefore, if any amount of changes inside the classroom–new classroom management plan or clearer instruction–doesn’t improve the overall situation, it might sometimes make sense to consider an outside-the-box solution and let it flow inwards.

So, my advice, encapsulated in 8 words: be a teacher, but be a person, too.

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks for the great article – I had fun reading it! I always love this blog. :)

  2. Well done . I am editing a blog on my experience teaching Chinese students and I will include some of your info.

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About this Blog

Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

Region
D.C. Region
Grade
High School
Subject
English

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