Sunday, May 31, 2009
Degrees of Separation
It has been a busy few weeks, the end of the school year, the last weeks with students for me. I am finishing up my work a couple of weeks prior to the end of the school year. I see the pressure to get everything done before the close of school, before the final exams, in both students and teachers. The changeable weather adds to the frenzied environment. I also notice each year end that some students struggle with the separation from the structure, support, and sometimes safety that our schools represent to them. Summer is coming and that is not always a welcomed thing in some of our neighborhoods and for some of our young people.
I was teaching this week in an urban school where gunfire in the neighborhood is sadly too prevalent. A district supply truck was loading things into the school a couple of floors below the window of the room where I was starting to get the students in the next period ready to brainstorm. A sharp noise rang out, startling the class and one young man quickly ducked and starting scanning the room. The noise resembled that of a shot and he did what he has been prepared to do, protect himself and get low to the ground. He quickly sorted out that the sound was not a gun and laughed a bit at himself as he caught my eye, straightening his body and taking his chair. I smiled and quietly affirmed, "That was an appropriate response." We connected for a moment and I believe that there was an instant of understanding that made a difference in his engagement in the lesson for the day, perhaps even his final output.
I am in the business of garnering trust quickly with students. I do not have the luxury of a school year's worth of conversation, instruction, relationship. I need to be someone who can not only be trusted but valued for bringing them an enjoyable as well as educational experience. I ask them to rely upon me, drop hesitancy and fear, buy into my plan and somehow I expect that most will. Then we get to work. I have discovered over the decade I have put into my teaching work, that the first 2 days are full of tests. It is my responsibility to show myself well to these students and to also establish that I am the tour guide on this journey, they are the passengers, and that this hierarchy is the rule.
By the third day, the lessons tend to flow better and students are more likely to commit their attention to the tasks at hand as well as contribute to the conversations. I am big on the conversations. They are more important to me than the graphic organizers and the forms and templates for creating cookie cutter poems that could be offered. The critical thinking starts with a series of provocations in the form of questions, inquiry that strays sometimes from the routine of the classroom that the teacher has created. Understand that I have tremendous respect for that routine but I have equal respect for the input of elements that stand to the side of the routine. I also respect the inherent intelligence and capacity of the students. I enter with no preconceived notions about their abilities or limitations. I may discover those throughout my residency but it is an "open book" when I first enter a teacher's realm. If this approach is not of value to a teacher, it will not be a smooth ride for us as colleagues.
I had such a week recently. I was challenged daily by my partnering educator, told that I do not understand how to work with "these kids," and that I need to retool my approach to instruction to be able to direct them, to give them the skills that they need. This was challenging and frustrating. No matter how I expressed my direction or my experience, I was critiqued negatively for many things. I had to look very closely at my pedagogy and my reasons for every action each afternoon on my drive home. I had to decompress with friends and vent. But it was a blessing because I understand really well why I take every step in the classroom, why I take my time to weave through the rows and among the tables to hand out papers, why I slide off topic for a moment of humor or politics. I know my teaching style so much better now that I have had this opportunity for assessment and self reflection.
I will not be changing soon. I will always grow my practice but I believe in what I do and how I do it. I believe in my empathy for each of those kids and I know that I give many teachers a lens for viewing their students in deeper ways as well. I know more about teaching than I may be given credit sometimes. This is no accident. It is a career that I have been developing and honing. It is a career that I love and it is supporting me, even in this time of recession.
Each time I leave a school, I leave behind a collection of poems that would not have been written in quite the way they were. I frequently do not even see the final product from my work because I am rarely in a school more than 5 days so the poems are completed after I leave. It is sad when I am done. Even the most reluctant students in days 1 and 2 ask why I need to go. Leaving is as much a part of the job as arriving, but bittersweet.
My last day this past week, one student was using every moment she could find to work on her poem on the computer, a poem that was stretching beyond 3 pages, a beautiful poem as well. This troubled student was finding safety on the screen as her words filled her view. Midday, she had a very explosive outburst in another class and there was the likelihood that she would not be able to come to my last class. I was saddened. It was suggested by the teacher who challenged me that it was perhaps her way of dealing with the separation factor. What she was saying was that this student was going to be abandoned, again, by another adult, and that adult was me. It was more empowering to create the separation herself than let it happen. This last part was my reading into the words but based on what I have experienced over and over again. It has been on my mind for several years, particularly when I am working with youth who are classified "at risk."
I take my role very seriously and I fear being another adult who walks away. But I have little choice. I just have to do my best to affirm these young people that they are valuable and bright, that I believe in them and will remember them. Then I collect my hugs, sometimes sign autographs (an act that always cracks me up), and sign out of the visitor log to head home, sometimes just across town, sometimes hundreds of miles from the students I leave behind.