Too Big to Hit, Or Too Big to Miss?

“I’m just a glorified babysitter.”

“Parents want us to raise their kids for them, but the way they want without needing to do any of the work!”

“I’m not their parent, they should be learning this at home.”

“You hit some, you miss some.”

“You can’t reach everyone; they’re only with you a few hours a day.”

“They see you more than the see their parents at home during the week.”

“I’m not a daycare, but all they want to do is sleep, eat, and sit there doing nothing!”

Our comments are so contradictory.

I have both heard these comments many times from other teachers, as well as spoken them myself out of frustration and bitterness. In teacher’s college, one of the first things I was taught was how students often see their teachers at school for a longer, more consistent period of time in a day then what they see their own parents. This may or may not be the fault of the parent; some are certainly neglectful and dismissive of their children, but many others are simply trying to get by and ensure a roof remains over their child’s head and food remains on the table. An aspect that was driven home again and again by my instructor was how we, as teachers, need to accept that we are often the second parent-set in a child and teen’s life.

At the end of even my most frustrating day, deep down through the tears I know that as I teacher I fulfill a parental-role for my students, younger and older, whether I want to or not. That part of the lesson has always been overwhelmingly clear for me, even before I began teaching. My volunteer work with City Kidz in my University years, even my experiences as a teen while in Army Cadets, made me vividly aware of this. I thought I knew what I was getting myself into for this department.

At the same time, however, as teachers we are not permitted to show the same affections you would normally be able to as parents; we cannot hug our students, cannot text or facebook them notes of encouragement, are severely restricted in methods and approaches of correction and discipline. Success as a teacher is often viewed by parents and administration in terms of high test scores and grades, rather than by skill development or changes in behavior. Catchphrases and trends in education swing from draconian to passive, from confusing, almost wild artistic and self expression, to uncompromising conformity and strict standardization.

Most of us enter the teaching profession because we love children and youth. We love showing them new skills, teaching them new things, preparing them for the future; we become teachers because at our hearts we wish HELP their parents guide them on the path to the future. But when full parenthood of another person’s child thrust upon us without care or warning, when it is expected of us, things can quickly become overwhelming. When children and youth have no concept of how to speak to others simply because they are only spoken to in mostly one manner at home and among their friends, when they do not know how to resolve conflict or solve problems without lashing out or shutting down, or when entitlement has been encouraged and taught instead of advocacy, the desire that drove us to become teachers in the first place runs the risk of being turned into bitterness and indifference. When students come to us over and over again without basic social or communication skills, when they demonstrate little desire or interest in learning these vital skills, and when we know they will be going back home at the end of the day to an environment that largely does not care or does not have time to encourage the development of these skills, it is enough to drive even the most dedicated teacher to consider other career options.

One thing that we often forget as teachers while we are being overwhelmed, and that older parents have already learned, is that often the seed you plant takes many years to bring forth fruit, and is tended by many other people down the road. In our role as a second parent-set, we as teachers become part of a child or youth’s inner voice as much as their own parent or guardian’s voice does.

A child is too big for our voice to miss. Even among the myriad of voices being bombarded at them, our voice is a part of it. Our influence, for better or for worse, is far too big in a child’s life not to hit and manifest somewhere. Whether it manifest in words of disappointment and degradation that simply join the other voices they hear throughout the day telling them how much of a screw-up they are, or whether they stand out against those voices as a word of encouragement despite the failure. When we tell them to do better, are they hearing us saying they are not good enough which is why they need to do better, or that they need to do better because we believe they can?

Part of this paradox lay in how our students internalize what we say, based on the relationship they have with us. Have they associated us with positive parental figures or negative ones? Has a relationship of safety and encouragement been built with them, or simply one of authority and expectations? Do they see us the jail-warden parent-figure, only seeking to make them act the way we want them to, trying to exert control over them and break them down to be what we want them to be? Are we the indifferent parent who doesn’t care, who only wants to ‘do their job’ because we are so busy and overwhelmed with everything else? Are we the parent who is quick-tempered or jumps to conclusions without first considering all sides and motivations? Are we the parent who is more concerned about being well-liked, being ‘cool’ then being a true parent with clear boundaries and fair but deserved consequences for choices made?

Of course, not being a parent myself, and being a (very) new teacher of only two years, I don’t have a clue what my parent-teaching style is yet. I am still in the process of developing it, and to be honest, I am often all over the place. I am lucky; I have 17 day students and 9 night students, giving me a better opportunity to think over and reflect on these aspects of my career. If I had begun teaching in a school of 34-39 students per class, 3 different classes per day, 6 different classes per school year, I would likely be so overwhelmed I would not have time or energy to consider this, even though it would still be true. And even though I can be reprimanded, even reported to the Ontario College of Teachers for “unprofessionalism” I still refer to my students, younger and older, as “my kids” and “my students” instead of “the kids” and “the class.”  My students know that I value them, and even though they are infuriating sometimes, exhausting most of the time, they know I have taken a parental-like responsibility for and with them. How do I know they are aware of this, even in some small degree? When I use the term “the student” or “the class” and students overhear me, they ask why I am mad, what happened to make me upset. They want to know why I am feeling like there is no relationship there, why I feel the need to distance myself from them.

I was actually quite shocked when I first realized this, since it isn’t as apparent with the older students in secondary grades. I thought perhaps I was seeing something that wasn’t there. So I kept watch and did a little improvised experiment; the more often I used “distanced terminology” such as “the class” and “the students” the more negative and disengaged behaviours occurred in both my grade 7 AND my grade 12 class. Student success dropped for those two weeks, attendance dropped, engagement decrease, defiance and power-struggles began to emerge where there wasn’t any; I even had one student comment how I was starting to act like her parent at home (which for this student is a very negative thing).

Much of this comes back to a previous blog I wrote, questioning where to draw the line and realize you have done all you can do, and accept you cannot reach everyone. But my students, OUR children, are too big to miss! It’s not a question of whether they are too big to hit them all, because the fact of the matter is we DO hit them all. The question is HOW we are hitting them, HOW they are remembering us hitting them, and what type of fruit comes from it later down the road. With teaching we do not always reap what we sow. Sometimes we do not even see the sprout of what we have sown, and sometimes we reap what others have sown before us. Sometimes all we can do is water a seed that has gone for a long time without being fed, and sometimes we need to irrigate the soil because the seed has been drown with too much water. And sometimes we might need to sow the seed all over again because the previous seeds have been neglected for so long.

Everything in life is a choice; what clothes we wear, what food we eat, when we go to bed, whether to finish our work or leave it to pursue something more pleasant. Even when bad things happen to us that are out of our control, we still have a choice on how we are going to react to what happened, and how we are going to allow what happened to impact us later in life. When I encounter students, it is my choice how I interact with my students and, likewise, how my students interact with me. It is my choice on how I establish what is appropriate and inappropriate, where I set the boundaries, and how I react to what my students say and do. And let me say, I do not always make good choices about my reactions to my students; often I allow my emotions to overrule what wisdom and Love are trying to tell me. But I do choose to apologize to my students, and I choose to have class discussions on why my reaction and behaviour was not appropriate. Even though the method is different depending on the grade, the idea is still the same; letting the students know that I am human, that the choices I made were not right, and what I could do differently next time to learn from it. It sounds lame, common-sense even, yet the impact is so profound on the students of all ages I have taught this far, that I can’t help but wonder what else can be done that is “too big to miss”? What else is being said or done that is hitting the students, no matter how “lame” or “boring” or “dumb” it may first appear, and what ISN’T being said or done that should be? What else has a “too big to hit” mentality when really, I should be thinking it’s “too big to miss”?

“Speak in anger and you’ll give the greatest speech you’ll ever regret.”

“Right now, you are failing, and you, and you, and you,” my finger points to each child in succession, my face red. “And what makes me mad is NOT that you are failing, but that you’re choosing to fail by not even bloody-well trying! News flash to you all: you get NOTHING in this class until you’re willing to try working for it! I WILL fail each and every one of you every single year if I have to until you learn to pick up a damned pen and stop being so lazy!”

Words spoken in anger days ago that still make me hang my head in shame…even if there are truth to the words.

I am certain the “motivation factor” is a common one for teachers: how do we make students WANT to learn? Most of the time it feels more like entertaining students then actually teaching them, and don’t get me wrong, I understand the connection between positive emotions and scaffolding based on relate-able material to increases in student success. However, where do we draw the line? And what happens when we, as educators, are simply not creative enough to come up with ways to make certain pieces of information entertaining?

But I digress. This post is not meant to be a rant, or lament, on student motivation and the current state of entitlement for instant gratification among children and youth. Rather, I want to explore reactions. Clearly, the example I provided above was a reaction from anger. For those of you who are curious: we were having a science lesson on the different types of effects a force can have on a structure. I wanted to demonstrate magnitude for the students, so I closed the door different times using a different amount of force each time. The last time, when I slammed it as hard as I could, I turned back to the class to find several students on IPods (which are banned in our class), two students who just jumped up to chase one another, and two other students throwing paper balls at one another, and only four of the fifteen students in class had copied the notes from the board.  Miss. S. was NOT a happy teacher, and slightly lost her cool…..

This had come after two previous days of the students, literally, completing NO work in class. They simply sat there, saying they were bored, or it was too hard, or they were too tired. It was the icing on the cake that caused me to snap after two days of trying to be understanding about some of them being tired, revamping the material as many times as I could, in as many ways as I could. That particular day’s episode proved to be the icing on the cake. I was at my snapping point and I lost it.

And, while many of my words I do not regret, the tone and spirit from which they were spoken still bothers me. How we speak to our children becomes their inner voice, and how I spoke that day was not out of love. Sometimes it it good for children and youth to see our flaws and recognize that we are human ourselves. Sometimes they need to know that we are disappointed in what they are, or are not doing. And sometimes a kind word spoken in a moment of failure is worth more than a word of praise spoken in a moment of success.

When, and how, to tell the difference between these times, I do not know.  I suspect this will come with time and experience, but what of the damage done in the meantime? After this incident, many of my students again began working on assigned work and putting more effort into activities, but I have also had three or four students who have not shown up to school since that day. Coincidence? Perhaps. I am not a big believer in coincidences, however, and I wonder if the words “You’re failing” stuck with them more than the word “You can succeed if you choose to.”

Many people may argue that you can’t reach every student, but I respond with “how do you know which students you can reach, and which you can’t?” Once you take the attitude that ‘you can’t win them all,’ you then unconsciously start to pick out which ones are worth your time, and which aren’t, which you want to focus on and which you want to give up on. When you take on the attitude of wanting to reach all of your students, you leave your heart open for heartbreak when some do eventually fall away. But if I am striving to teach from a basis of Love, then closing my heart and being unwilling to risk that heartbreak is not an option. Being willing to shed tears for the students you hurt for are a sign that you are willing to truly give them a place in your heart in the first place, no matter how much it hurts.

Success is Relative, Fair is NOT Equal.

Both my mother and my father always told my sister and I that we could be anything, anyone, we wanted to be when we grew up.

Even if that “something” was a teacher.

You see, my father HATES teachers. To this day, he has very few good things to say about them and several negative experiences growing up to justify his disdain for them. My younger sister, likewise, is not a fan. She had some good ones she remembers pleasantly, but more often ones she hopes to never remember or see again. One of my closest friends throughout my intermediate and senior years (and up to this day), was always an infamous “problem child” at school. Some of the teachers still remember my sister and my friend’s name and shudder at the memories.

Growing up with family and friends who were “troubled” students in school (to say the least!), I always swore I wanted to be “different”. But we all say that in our oblivious optimism, don’t we? Then we land ourselves in our own classroom, where we find ourselves completely overwhelmed, and end up falling back on what we remember from our own time in school, instead of what we feel led to.

At least I know I did.

Once my first student began throwing his chair, while others were vaulting over desks in a game of “classroom tag” (remember, this is grade 7), everything I learned in teacher’s college, everything I learned working in the developmental field and everything I learned working with inner-city youth threatened to fly right out the door. And, of course, that was exactly the reaction the students were hoping for. Thankfully, I was able to catch myself before *I* permittted the problems to escalate based on my reactions. And now, 7 months down the road, I can turn around to make notes on the blackboard, or even leave the class quickly to make photocopies across the hall, without worrying about my students (literally) climbing up the walls! Sick-days and substitutes we are still working on, but taking small successes one step at a time is a huge part of my classroom.

The point here is not to say, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m doing so well!” In fact, I am likely doing rather poorly, by administration standards. Over half of the year is gone and less than half of the curriculum has been covered, most of my students are still failing, and many community members refuse to substitute within my classroom (we do no have proper subs up here due to our location).  That being said, my students regularly volunteer their own time to help the grade 8 class fundraise for their end-of-the-year trip, they have rescued 2 puppies within our classroom instead of letting the puppies freeze and using the frozen bodies for ice-hockey (true story from last year…), they run out of class to try and help catch the JK and SK students who run from their classroom, are often late for school because they are making meals or helping younger siblings/cousins get ready, and are usually willing to try new things presented to them.  They are starting to read ingredient labels on what they eat, starting to listen to the news and ask questions about what is going on that affects not just the North here, but also Canada as a whole.

My point here, is that success is relative, and fair is not equal.

One thing my father, my sister and my friend all taught me early on, was that success for one person is different then success for another. Some of my students may never reach “provincial standards” (whether by their own choice, or by extenuating circumstances), but they will learn how to have compassion for those around them, how to think for themselves and ask questions, know where to look to have those questions answered. They may hate opening books, or writing things down, but they will be able to watch an advertisement on television and recognize the brain-washing elements and habit-forming addictions these adds are endorsing. Although I would LOVE to see each of my students finish high-school and pursue some avenue of post-secondary, I would be just as happy to see them being able to raise a functional family that is able to communicate with one another effectively.

And for this success, one thing I need to keep reminding myself over and over again, is that fair is NOT equal. This is still a concept that, although very easily said, is so much harder to put into practice, and I struggle with every day. One of the best ways I have heard/seen this concept explained is; fair is everyone getting what they need in order to be successful. This naturally follows, that what is “fair” for one student may not be “fair” for another. And for some things, such as large concerns like weapons, violence, bullying, etc., there does need to be consistency. But we are not talking about a type of….”discipline relativism” or “educational relativism”. I agree that all students need to learn basic skills and knowledge in order to be successful in life. But they do NOT need to learn those things all the same way.

This is what I still struggle with daily. I am not nearly creative enough as I need to be right now to know how to differentiate my instruction so I can be “fair” for all of my students. Many things I teach in grade 7 I do not know well enough myself and can only rely on how I remember learning it. But when my students see me struggling with it, I admit it to them and tell them I do now know how else to teach it. Although they are frustrated, most of my students can at least accept that, and will usually attempt the work a second time before giving up. Sometimes they offer suggestions, which is great!

Some teachers I have spoken to tell me this becomes easier with practice. Others tell me it is a great ideal…until I have a family of my own to contend with. Others say it is too much coddling. I’m not sure yet. But I do know that one thing my father, my sister and my friend all share with many of my students this year: when you try to make them fit into a mold they weren’t built to fit in to, something is going to break. Their mold needs to have enough flexibility to allow them to settle-in, but enough boundaries to prevent them from leaking out or pouring themselves too thin.

New to the Blogging Domain!

Family and friends have been hounding me since 2011 to keep some sort of record about the experience of teaching in the remote Ontario North. Although I love writing, for some reason I could never really get in to the activity of keeping a journal, or even jotting down notes in the several notebooks my mother sent me!

But the idea of blogging about teaching, not just teaching strategies, rantings, feel-good posts, and daily blogs, but rather, about teaching as a lifestyle choice, as an action or service of love, seems like something that is strongly on my heart and won’t go away. And so, although this blog will likely contain my experiences in living in a remote, traditional Cree community, it will also reflect my feelings and musings as a teacher. Not just a teacher by profession, but a teacher by lifestyle; what that really means, should look like and could look like. Of course, there will be plugs for teaching resources and ideas, resource lists, rantings and such, but my hope is this blog will help both myself and those who read it look deeper into the heart of what it is to be a Teacher, and how to be the type of teacher who can teach by with and through Love, despite the social, political and personal obstacles we are up against.

Thank you for taking the time to read and enjoy the rest of your online time!

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