Having students for three years straight would make anyone feel like a parent to their group of students. It’s the way I feel with my students who graduated last year, as well as the other group that I had for two consecutive years. After a while, they start taking on bits of you that you wouldn’t realize: the wise cracks, the sarcasm, the appropriate measured rebellion against administration, the idea of family and team. Not sure if that bond has translated for them in their present high schools, but I’m almost certain many of the boys and girls still stay together and keep in touch via different social media.
As is usually the case, many of them either see me in the street or come directly to my school. Almost everyone has given the “MR. VILSON!” salute. Four of my boys almost stopped traffic in the middle of Dyckman St. to run after me and salute me. One of my students just stopped, didn’t know what to do, and proceeded to hug me sheepishly (endearing really). One of them even ran by one of their former teachers to say hello. Reactions like that are what many teachers appreciate about their job. Yes, a decent paycheck is nice, but making an impact in a person’s life is equally, if not more, important.
No one remembers why two of three angles in an isosceles triangle have to be of equal measure, but they do remember the time you took to explain it carefully until they got it.
That’s where many of my students get annoyed, and eventually fail. As bright as they are, some teachers don’t think it’s their job to explain their material carefully, or at least put the students in the direction of understanding. Some people don’t want to motivate my students to do better, even when they secretly yearn for higher expectations. Some teachers think, because it’s a high school job, they don’t have to do anything but deliver the instruction; if students choose to drop out, then that’s on them, and the ones who deserve to make it eventually will.
All my students come to me with the same complaint: “Mr. Vilson, they don’t really explain anything. I mean, look at this!” showing me a worksheet that probably has nothing to do with the work they had to do in the classroom. At some point in the conversation with the students, I ask them the usually roll of questions, “Do you do your homework? Do you ask them for help after school and during class? Do you bring your textbook? Do you take vodka shots before every quadratic equation like I do? Do you care enough?”
The answer usually falls in the answer of “I’ve done as much as I could, and all the teacher does is yell or push me away. It’s like I don’t have a voice.” Frustration lines the lips of many of those students. As someone who had them for three consecutive years, I also tried to find fault within myself. Did I make them used to math a certain way for so long that they were unprepared to someone else’s style? Did I need to be more rigorous so they could build a stronger armor once they hit the high school scene? Did I raise their confidence too high while preaching the merits of making it past high school and into college?
I think a lot.
I contemplated some of those factors on the A train, in between naps from 125th to 59th, wondering if somehow the consistency of my teaching made this crop of students ill-prepared for the fast pace and often callous approach of the high school environment. Then, I thought about how, frankly, I don’t know how to teach any other way. I like building strong relationships with my students. I loved their distinct avant-garde approach to school. When others in the school forgot about the class, I made them feel special. When others held a low expectation for them, I kept pushing to raise it. When others thought it was OK to treat them like dirt just to intimidate them, I gave second chances and apologized when I got out of hand.
I became a parent.
So yes, if you’re one of my former students’ teachers, I do want you to explain “it” to them. You don’t have to be me, but be the best you. That’s all I could do.
Mr. V, even when I don’t realize it.