A few weeks ago, I learned something about the year I’ve had so far, and it unnerved me in a way I didn’t expect. As most of you know, I celebrated another glorious birthday on this Earth on January 24th. I spent time in the company of family and friends through the weekend. IHOP, rum and coke mixes, and heavy doses of well wishes from around the world more than sufficed for that great day. Yet, something was missing, and I couldn’t pinpoint it until about 5pm on the A train home.
My current students barely acknowledged my birthday.
For the past 5 years, I had been so spoiled by the various classes I had, and the kinship I built with each of those groups that I just got used to having to skip a day of lesson planning every year just for this occasion, one I never (and I mean ever) prompted. These moments of celebration kept my teacher battery going for the rest of the year. I threw myself into many of my students’ lives with a passion that wiped me out without fail at around 3:10pm daily. I dug so deep to become the best person for them that people used Mr. Vilson more than Jose in the last five years to call for me (Yes, even Mom).
I scaled back that aspect of my teaching significantly. Somewhere between my math coaching responsibilities and the changes in my personal life, I decided I needed to reserve some of that passion and redistribute it to the other parts of me. The results showed. My students only acknowledge me sheepishly in the hallway. They have to be reminded to say “Good morning.” They’re not disrespectful, but they’re not running into class like I used to have them.
Any other teacher might think, “Well it’s a different generation of students.” This is true, too. There’s a general malaise and apathy in the attitudes of my current students in the importance of family, and certainly their home situations have different implications for how they see authority figures. But I also had to acknowledge that the culture of accountability and data forced me to think more critically about them as students, and, for a few moments after their first report cards, mistake the students for the people behind those roles. I no longer have one single room to dedicate to my educational anarchy; thus everything has to be tighter.
I was becoming less Mr. Vilson and more the teacher I didn’t want to be.
I didn’t like it. On January 25th, I slowly went back to my roots again, the ones I was hoping to establish in the beginning of the year. When the students get something correct, I’m vowing to encourage their continued participation in that thought. When the students gets something incorrect, I’m promising to not hold it against them, no matter how off they may be. When the students as a whole disappoint me, I’ve gone back to becoming vulnerable, and in that vulnerability, show that I really care whether or not they get educated, passionate diatribes and all. Letting them sit there and not even give an honest effort is and never has been not enough.
Even as my students get more restless thinking about graduation and their emergent personal issues, my kids still need someone to acknowledge that their abilities as students don’t determine whether they’re great people or not. To be sure, I had another incident yesterday where a student told me that she didn’t want to take a quiz. I replied with the usual prepared statement about her needing to take the quiz and be prepared for class everyday. I didn’t yell, but I kept my eye on the situation. A few moments later, my co-teacher pulled her out of class and she was sent home.
This morning, I talked to the co-teacher and he told me the story behind it, a story you can probably fill in the blanks about yourself. How you react to it should be how I reacted this morning. Pull her out of class when no one suspects anything. Don’t tell her anything she’s expecting to hear. Actually acknowledge that she’s having an issue without saying exactly what it is. Ask her to give a good effort on the test. Give her a firm opportunity to re-do the work at a later date. If she’s earnest, she’ll do it.
Then ask her if she’s going to be OK. Good. Now, tell her to get back into class.
It’s not necessary to cry along with her (even though I’ve done that with a couple of students in my previous years). Just let her know that you’re there for her. Without having to say it. The student part can wait until the kid is ready.
Mr. Vilson, who officially has his own writing style …