Lost At Sea

The Doldrums

Jose Vilson Jose 5 Comments

Lost At Sea

Lost At Sea

She sits there, black marker in her left hand, pencil in her right, switching from one to the other like a pendulum, clocked to the rhythm of her observant teacher’s sustained looks in her general direction. Days after an extended conversation with her teacher about the merits of putting in her effort, weeks after a summer her teacher hoped might give her a little time to reflect and grow, months after an incident or two that have never really left her or any of the people involved, and approximately a year after her teacher first met this promising young lady, she’s as disinterested and disengaged as any one student the teacher’s ever taught.

He naturally blames himself. And he has every right to.

At some point, he, like everyone else whose had to confront any student far beyond their natural reach, had to come to a disappointing conclusion: one can’t reach every single child.

I came to that realization sometime my second year when the very students who I needed to reach out to had every and any excuse to excuse themselves from my class. As in most public schools across the nation, sometimes the only way to keep the student in the school is to set a much lower standard for them in hopes they catch up with the rest of the students.

Sometimes they do, and I can’t dispute that. However, some often don’t.

And you’re left wondering a few things about a school’s culture after that finally gets through to you. How detrimental is having that one student who blatantly disregards the school culture help out the rest of the students? Conversely, how much does the student care for your rules when he or she has more existential problems, ones that a free lunch can’t remedy? How much of a hit to your pride can you take when every impassioned speech, well-written lesson plan, perfect seating plan, referral for discipline and / or counseling, cross-meeting with parent / guardian / dean / fellow teachers, triumphant teacher movie viewing, and trials of multiple approaches only works for that period?

If it works at all.

Folks, I’m not saying we should completely give up hope. The 300 or so of you reading this now know I fight as hard as I humanly can. I’ve often take the ones under my wing that others consider untouchable and done a relatively good job in said situations (which is why I often get the difficult classes). I also know that much of the deliberations we go through, worrying about whether a student will eventually come around, don’t often materialize into much because oftentimes, it’s not about me or you. It’s not about whether the student is lazy, inconsiderate, raised badly, etc. The same formula that works on a similar student once may not work the next time. Even more so, you may not actually be the teacher that works for that student.

In other words, we’re human. We err. Bigtime.

Standing there as that teacher who’s slowly seeing his student crumble, I have a hard time scrambling for ideas to fully engage her since I know more than I often should. So what do I do? I continue the lesson, and keep the same standards for every child as I should. Somewhere in there, I hope she can purposely slip herself into the lesson.

Mr. Vilson, who knows he’ll learn something from Pedro Noguera tomorrow.

About Jose Vilson

José Luis Vilson is a math educator, blogger, speaker, and activist. For more of my writing, buy my book This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, on sale now.

Comments 5

  1. Ann

    Why do we beat ourselves up? We do because we care, and that is the single most important thing a teacher can do. It’s not the well-planned lessons or the stacks of essays, it’s the connections we make with our students. Sometimes, no matter how much we try, we are just not successful. The thing that makes you an outstanding teacher is that you recognize when you are not connecting. Hang in there, you just never know when that connection might happen.

  2. Anne V

    This is where insomnia starts… what if? If only? Why didn’t I? You may not have made the connection in the here and now, but you don’t know if something you’ve said or done will sink in later on. Students definitely surprise you, all the time.

  3. Post
    Author
    Jose

    Thanks Ann and Anne. We beat ourselves up because we care. You’re so right, and that’s part of the reason why we’re in this profession. We try and try and eventually when that well’s dry, we find another one to refresh ourselves with. It’s the cycle of an effective teacher. It’s rarely the case when, getting into a classroom, every student is perfectly still and ready to learn for 180 or so days straight. Even if you get a 1/4 of that, you’re fortunate. We just gotta keep on keeping on, so to speak.

  4. Carrie Kamm

    You are going to hear Pedro speak? Lucky you-he is my professional crush :) Please post some of what you learn-I always find him engaging and he always leaves me with something to think about.

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