Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Was it Opposite Day?

I'm the parent of a teenager, so their natural bipolarity should not surprise me.  However, over and over I have experienced this phenomenon of students, who I swore hated me last year, coming to visit me and hug me and telling me how much they miss my class this year.  In fact, of all of my challenging students from last year, all apparently developed some kind of revisionist amnesia except for one (and by the way, I love to smile brightly at her in the hall and say hello).  My 7th period ladies who made me crazy, come by to see me at least once a day.  The boys who slept in my class, came late, and generally refused to accept learning without a fight, all come and give me hugs and high fives like I'm a long-lost relative.  I asked one of my former 7th Period ladies about it at Friday Night's Football game. 

I think my most jaw dropping, head-scratching experience came last week with a student I will call Andrea.  Andrea is a big girl and comes off mean as a snake.  She carries herself in a way that makes it clear that no one should mess with her.  Andrea told me to "F... off" at least three times before Christmas break.  One time, she threw such a fit after I asked her to spit her gum out that I had to have our SRO (School Resource Officer--a police officer assigned to security detail at our school) come in.  She refused to move even for him and ended up suspended for a few days.  She was categorically unlikeable, never participated, often slept and frequently gave me dirty looks.

However, I always greeted Andrea at the door with a smile, was encouraging and helpful even when she wasn't receptive to it. I got her extra help on the SOL and when she didn't pass it, I told her that I knew how hard she worked and that I felt confident she could pass it next time.  At the end of the year, she was borderline between passing and failing and I worked with her until she got everything made up and passed (barely).  Never once did she crack a smile or in any way show that she appreciated any of it.

Last week, I was eating lunch in my room when Andrea came in with a friend, gave me a big hug and told her friend I was her "favorite teacher ever".  I was stunned, trying to figure out if she was trying to play some kind of joke on me.  Then she came by again the next day, this time alone and told me all about her classes.  She came by again today, walking through my door singing cheerfully "Hi Favorite Teacher!"  Finally, I couldn't control myself anymore and said "Andrea, I am really surprised to hear you say that because I honestly thought you did not like me last year."  She looked completely shocked and said, "Miz Nilknarf!  Why did you think that?!"  I responded, "Well, there were several incidents where you were very upset with me and told me to 'F off'."

Andrea's face softened and I got a glimpse of the sweet child she must have been before whatever happened to make her so hard.  "Ms. Johnston, I didn't hate you!  I was just angry!  Not at you...at everything.  I still get angry sometimes.  I've already been suspended this year because I got angry and cussed at Mr. B.  But really, you were the only teacher who I really thought actually cared about me."

My God. 

For all that these kids are rude, disrespectful, lazy, and sometimes downright unlikeable, each one of them is truly just a kid that needs someone to care about them.  I have no idea what this poor child's situation is at home, but obviously it has not been an easy road for her.  I ended last year saying that if  my students had learned nothing else and remembered me with disdain, at least I never compromised in my goal of teaching them how to be responsible, thoughtful, respectful, productive Citizens of the World.

In the end, isn't this what teaching is truly about?  Of course, I want my students to succeed academically, pass the SOL, learn to be great writers, become avid readers and go on to college and have successful careers.  However, if I can make them feel like they matter, is that not valuable?  I need to hold onto that thought when I have a day like yesterday, where I had a girl-fight in my classroom and ended up having Daniel removed from my class and suspended!

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