They emphasized that we teachers must ensure that our students are fully engaged. They told us that students who value the relationships they build at school perform better. They urged us to relate more to students, to be available, to be caring without lowering our academic standards. I agree with these messages, but these broad discussions weary me. I left the day uncertain if the measures I take to engage my students are enough. If not enough to reach every single student, are my efforts at least enough to make me “a good teacher?”
When my developmental writing class trooped in Wednesday morning, two young women balanced tubs of Tupperware amongst their bags. Within, they carried the validation I needed. On Monday, I had been reviewing compound-complex sentences. I directed students to write a complex sentence and then add a simple sentence to the end as a way to get used to writing this structure. As a model, I wrote: “If Joe needs the car, we can walk, so he can drive.” A few students argued that “he can drive” was too “little” to be a sentence. We talked again about the three things needed for a sentence, but then I launched into a metaphor I’ve used for at least ten years.
“I’m the youngest of four,” I began. “So when it came to things like baking birthday cupcakes, my mom had been around the block. A box of cake mix makes about 26-28 cupcakes, and my grade school classes always had about 30-32 kids. My mom would make that one box stretch, making these little cupcakes that didn’t even rise above the liner paper! Then she’d make one batch of icing stretch, skimping so much that sometimes the cake could be seen through the thin veil of icing she scraped across it. I would complain. ‘These cupcakes look cheap! They’re too small! They need more icing! Add some candy to the top!’ Of course, my mother had none of it. ‘We don’t need to bring cupcakes at all,’ she’d say. I just wanted fancy bakery cupcakes like the Pino girls brought, the cake mounded high above the wrapper, the icing flourished generously. But alas, my mother made a point. Though small and simple, my cupcakes were still cupcakes.” I correlate that the humble simple sentence “He can drive” has the three basic elements needed to be a sentence. Just because some people like extra icing (adjectives and adverbs) or candy on top (prepositional phrases) doesn’t mean this humble little structure is any less a sentence. Usually, my classes laugh and shake their heads at me. I tell this story with a bit of drama. I mean, it’s an hour and forty minutes of grammar in isolation I’m asked to teach here! I try to personify parts of speech, too…I tell them the semi-colon is for when the ideas are so intimate they want to slow dance, touching down the length of their little word bodies…I get goofy. The cupcake story is no exception. On Monday, my class laughed.
However, on Wednesday, these two girls brought in cupcakes for the class, “like Ms. K’s mother never made her, like the sentences she wants to see.” I get teary now just writing about it. I wouldn’t have told anyone Monday or Tuesday that these girls related to me in any special or particular way. They don’t seek me out all the time. I’m not certain they’ll come back to visit me after our schedules part. They baked those cupcakes and gave me a delightful, sweet, and unexpected dose of validation. How many students feel that engaged but just don’t know how to bake? We may never be able to accurately assess how “engaged” our students feel in our classes. Now when I reflect on my Tuesday night concern about whether or not I am trying hard enough to engage my students, I think that maybe any teacher who cares enough to evaluate him or herself every so often is probably doing it right. I know dozens of teachers who deserve a student-baked cupcake who may not get one. It’s an imperfect science out there. I may not get another cupcake for another ten years. But I got one this week, and it sure is sweet…co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher