24 April 2013

Read the Instructions Exactly

Dear World -

Today my students are sitting in a nearly silent room taking a state test.  It's very exciting.

Yesterday we had ethics training on the proper way to administer a state test.  For example, I'm not allowed to distribute colored candies to my students suggesting correct answers to them.  I told them this, and they laughed.  I'm glad they laughed - it meant they know me well enough to know that I wouldn't ever do that.  I hope they see me as an honorable person.  So no candy.  I am, however, encouraged to bribe my students with bonus points or prizes for doing well on this test.  "They won't do well any other way," the government says.  "Teenagers need to be tricked into learning" is what I hear.

I was livid.

I also had a conversation recently that bewildered me a bit.  "You don't have your class rules posted," the individual said.  "No, I don't." I replied.  "I don't need to."

"They should see the rules.  It's helpful for them because then they know what is expected."

I don't need to post rules in my classroom.  I don't have class management problems.  Instead of posting rules, we post values.  Each year we select a quote from a poem or essay that matters.  We post them in the classroom and every year we add a new one.  This year the quote is 'Carpe the heck out of your diem.'  Last year it was 'I am a part of all that I have met'.  One year it was 'Live like a champion today'.    I don't want to set a ceiling on expected behavior, because I want them to do the unexpected.  They don't rip up my room because that's not the kind of student I expect them to be.  But sometimes the administrative world of teaching doesn't quite get that.  "If rules aren't posted, how do they know?" I can see them thinking.  "Teenagers are always looking for a way to goof off.  Posting the rules fixes that."

Clearly these professionals don't see what I see.

I told my students about those thoughts today.  Reminded them (as if they needed reminding) that there are people in this world that think very little of them.  That think they have so little integrity and honesty that they won't do anything without a cheap, tangible, sugary or point laden reward.  I told them that I think better of them than that.  That I trust them.  That I love them - each of them - for the wonderful individuals they are.  I told them to kick the test in the face because they are the kind of people who should do everything to the best of their ability because it's right, not just when they feel like it or when they care, but all the time.  Even during state tests.

I've been aching for them lately.  For me too.  Because although I carry myself with confidence, I feel like I'm still flying by the seat of my pants most of the time with this teaching thing.  There are still many topics that I don't present as well as I could.  Subjects I'm a little more vague on than I would like to be.  Ideas that I struggle to communicate well.  I'm still learning, still so new at this teaching thing.

It's hard, teaching.  It's such a strange balance of instinct and study.  Every now and then I get emails from parents wondering why I don't teach a certain topic a different way.  "Clearly," they tell me, "This would be so much better".  Maybe they're right.  "You should start an after school writing club," another parent suggested.  "Not everyone is as good at writing as you."  Yes, I think.  I know that.  I read more of their writing than you do.  Maybe I should start a writing club.  Maybe that would fix it.  Or maybe your kid should pay attention in class.  Or maybe I picked vocabulary the day I taught certain lessons that just didn't connect.  Or maybe the kid came in from lunch tired from a full stomach or frustrated because of an argument with a friend, or tired from a late night baseball game.  Or maybe my instructions were confusing and I could have been a little more clear.  Maybe somewhere between the kid and me it's just going to take a few more tries.  Maybe it was a perfect storm of all of the above.  Who knows?

Oh, how I wish that teaching were as easy as giving a state test.  Wouldn't it be wonderful if all I had to do was read the instructions exactly on how to teach a topic?  How to understand each student?  How to communicate with each parent?  How to talk about each book?  It would be so much easier.  So much less stressful.  It would make so many more parents happy.  It would produce wonderfully predictable results.  "If you take my class," I could say, "I will turn you into THIS."  But it isn't that easy.  I'm an imperfect person still trying new things.  Sometimes I connect better with one student than with another.  Sometimes my class changes lives.  Sometimes - hopefully not as often - it stresses and frustrates them instead.  Is that a sin?  I don't think so.  It's unfortunate and inconvenient and downright frustrating - but that's life.  I can't be everything for everyone.  I'm not that good.

In the mean time, I keep trying to move forward.  I pray that my students will be patient with me as I try to figure things out.  That parents will forgive me my imperfections and that God will help students to learn when I fall short.  I do my best.  I try to learn from mistakes and get better each time, because I owe it to them.  They deserve the world.

Please - for me - the next time you see a teenager you know, please tell them how wonderful they are.  And remember that with few exceptions, their teachers are honestly trying to do what they think is best.  Maybe what the teacher is doing isn't best.  Maybe for some it is and some it isn't.  It happens.  But they mean well.  No one in their right mind would enter this profession otherwise.


Lisa said...

Once again, Joni, very well put. I admire your passion and honesty regarding teaching. How I wish every teacher had your same attitude! You are certainly in the right profession and your students are lucky to have you!!

Mark Newman said...

I'm pretty sure you learned, or perhaps better stated, inherited, your writing skills from your dad. It's just a hunch, maybe misguided, but still an accurate sentiment. But really, Joni, you are amazing!