Friday, January 16, 2009

Resisting Lip Service

I don’t like lip service. If I endorse something verbally, I try to follow through on it personally. It’s a process, to be sure, but as I stumble through this life, I try to be authentic (even when I’m authentically wrong!). We start a new semester every January, and I get new classes of students. Some students are new to me and some students I’ve had before. I believe that each student deserves a clean slate on the first day of class. I do. Truly. However, when my class roster greets me with the names of students who failed my class in December, I sometimes struggle to follow through on my clean slate ideology.

Giving a clean slate in January seems more difficult than giving a clean slate in August. In August when I see a familiar name on my roster, I think, “Well, maybe so-and-so’s done some growing up over the summer.” But in three weeks? How much personal growth and maturity can happen in three weeks? It just takes more prayer and meditation to conjure up that attitude in January.

This week, a young student whose name brought a quick flashback of frustrating moments to mind I’ve taught before came half an hour late to the first class, greeting me with a big grin. I smiled, gave the student the assignment the class sat working on, and kept teaching. During a quiet moment a few minutes later, the student walked up to me and said, “You’re going to kill me. I don’t have any paper.” I smiled with rue and recollection and handed over paper.

Ideologically, I don’t want to be the teacher who laughs and shakes her head and says snottily, “Of course you don’t have paper.” I didn’t do that. Yet. It’s difficult to write about this because I’d love to say that all my years of experience have made me immune to this kind of human pettiness. This student creates a teaching challenge because the ability to learn sits intact and beautiful within this young mind, awaiting the arrival of the willingness to learn. If some other teacher had this student this January, I would say, “That student is a good kid who deserves a fresh start.” Why is it so difficult to provide that fresh start myself? Being late and forgetting paper are small infractions when the slate is clean, but it didn’t feel that way when it happened with this familiar student… Where can I flush my build-up of frustration and disappointment with this student, so we can both begin again?

To follow through on really giving a fresh start to students even when I know better, I have to stick to some good habits. I need to get enough sleep. In my opinion, snotty teaching is fueled by fatigue. I need to eat well. I need to schedule in family and leisure time, because when I feel like “I have no life,” I get frustrated more easily in my classroom. I need to continue my policy of non-engagement when teachers complain about students together. Do I ever complain about students? Sure! Obviously, I’ll even write about it extensively and post it on the Internet, but I try to refer to students without names or identifying characteristics. My colleagues and I often teach the same students, and I don’t want to taint either the teacher’s or the student’s future experiences. If someone wants to complain about a student by name, I walk away or change the subject. It fosters an ugly kind of teaching fungus I don’t want to breathe.

When the tired, discouraged, and jaded voice about a student rants from within my own head, however, I struggle. I do. I am. I poured a lot of energy and hope into this kid last time. Even though I know grades are students’ responsibility, I feel rejected by this person because my class did not star in the student’s universe, and I’m still licking those wounds. (Whenever I have an ugly teaching feeling, it almost always roots itself in narcissism. Ugh.) I need to put the sign back in my center drawer that says, “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU, KATE!” and look at the student with fresh eyes. It’s a new day, right? The student could have paper tomorrow, right?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Anonymous said...

This is late, but I hope that you are doing something for yourself, even when there is no, have a glass of wine, and watch a good movie (even it it's online) this weekend. Know that over here, when I read you, I am motivated to continue being who I am, an English teacher, like you.

Kate Kellen said...

Thank you for such a sweet comment. I like to do all the things you list; in addition, I like to take a bubble bath while streaming a show on my laptop...Here's to the weekend!

Mike said...


The question you raise is an important one, and I am impressed with your balanced response to it. If the student prefaces his paper request with "You are going to kill me," it at least indicates some level of self-awareness on his part. Just make sure that laptop doesn't end up in the bath with you.