Friday, October 10, 2008

Sometimes it works

A former student of mine visited today. I taught her in the 9th grade, and later she was my baseball manager for her junior and senior year. This girl loved to read and loved baseball - how could she not have been one of my favorite students of all time?

She's now a freshman at Coppin State, where she's finding every class really easy, which makes me happy. We apparently prepared her well. And, she wants to be a teacher, and is already working in a classroom.

A total success story, she had a baby at the beginning of her sophomore year of high school. She never let the situation turn her away from her studies. In fact, I think the baby centered her, and made her a better student. Don't get me wrong; I would not give this advice to anyone. But after generally being an erratic student in the 9th grade (as many 9th graders are), she seemed to gain a sense of academic maturity after becoming a mother. I'm sure a lot of other factors worked into it, including a boyfriend (not the father) who happened (and happens) to be one of the most solid kids you'd ever want to know (also taught him in the 9th grade). They've been together 4 or 5 years, and, from Facebook updates, look like they plan to get married; he's away at school, studying to be a veterinarian, but everything looks to be going strong with them. She wore a big necklace with his name on it when I saw her.

So she spoke to me today, and I was bemoaning the state of my 9th graders. Thirty-three out of 125 just don't have any clue what it means to be in high school, and have grades of under 50%. I tell the students that anything below an 80 is unacceptable, that they have to shoot for the moon because even if they miss they're still among stars, but only about 15 kids are pulling B's or above. The transition from middle school to high school is a rough one, though; I have heard from my middle school colleagues - and their graduates bear it out - that most middle schools in the city just don't make their kids work nearly hard enough. I'm not thinking this class is any worse than previous ones, necessarily, but, wow - they have got to start to figure it out. I gave long-winded and mildly angry speeches to all of them today, about how after eight years of teaching, I'm just sick and tired of seeing young people throw away their talents and their minds because they are unwilling to work hard. These bright young people can write their own tickets if they do well in high school; colleges will be beating down their doors trying to recruit them. But not if they have an average of a 72.

I have students who can pull an 80 on a test without studying, but do no homework so their grade is terrible. And students who think coming to my extra credit study hall on Wednesdays will help them pass when they don't do the major project for the unit (and they're fun projects, too). Students that beg and plead for higher grades but have no clue that work and actual learning is a requirement.

I don't like being harsh. They need it, but I still don't like it. I do sort of wish I was a college instructor, because I would have liked to have peppered the speech with some f-bombs, but I still think I got the point across. Guilt is my most formidable weapon as a classroom manager. I treat the kids fair and I think they generally like me, so when they disappoint me with their behavior or work ethic, the disappointment is genuine and I think they can see it - and, if not, my much-mocked-after-they-have-me-as-a-teacher line of "I'm so disappointed in you right now" works. And it's no act. So, there were tears. There was anger. But, hopefully, there will be lots of hard work over the weekend on 1.2 and 1.3 of Romeo and Juliet.

But my former student smiled, and told me this: "You know what was one of the turning points in my life? I remember my mother and I were at parent/teacher conferences during my 9th grade year, and we were right behind 'Jasmine' [a brilliant A student who got a full ride to Hopkins and who I taught as a 9th and 11th grader]. My mom and I were waiting in the hallway, and we could hear you all talking in the classroom - about how outstanding she was, about how she's doing all her work, and everything else.

"Then, me and my mom went in there, and - do you remember this? - my mom asked how I was doing. You told her, 'well, you know, I haven't even seen 'M' in 3 or 4 days. She's not doing good at all' and, I remember how disappointed my mom was, and how disappointed I was in myself, and after that moment, I turned it around. I still remember it to this day."

And, at that, I hoped she didn't notice the tear in my eye, and we talked more and more about school and teaching and I sent her on her way back to the home football game. Seeing her was exactly what I needed after the day I spent scolding kids. Because, you know, she reminded me that sometimes scolding works.


Anonymous said...

Dude, you need to collect blog posts like this one into a book of vignettes. This one, the one about the department chair who taught your lesson plan, etc. It would be published and end up as required reading in teacher prep programs. Seriously.

TSI Scott

Zeek and I said...

Wow, this post made me tear up. You never know when a comment can inspire or deter students from trying their best. It is so important to be honest and real with your students, like you. Bravo!

Anonymous said...

Wow. It's hard to tell the truth to parents, but it is worth it.