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Kristin | February 16, 2011

Those *** Students


EBy Kristin

Natalie Munro, a Pennsylvania teacher who has said uncomplimentary things about her students on a blog - a personal blog, one unaffiliated with her job - has been busted.

Natalie's story made me think of how we're more comfortable tearing down than building up, how we expect parents to make our lives easier, and how we so readily wave the superhero cape but don't often put it on and get to work.  After all, we're not superheroes.  We can't fly.  We would be fools to believe we could.

If you choose to teach needy students, you will at some point get frustrated that their parents aren't doing a better job.  It is hard - no one but a teacher knows how hard - to get a child to value his education when nothing else in his world is willing to work toward its success.

Me: "James, I need you here every day.  You are so smart.  You can have the world.  I can help you get there, but you have to be here."

James:  "I know.  I'll try. Don't worry Ms. B."

A week later, after not seeing James.

Me:  "James.  You've got to be here.  I'm here.  At lunch, at break, I'm here.  Come to class.  We're reading that book you wanted."

James:  "I will.  I'm serious. I want to go to college.  I'll be here.  Don't worry, Ms. B."

And so forth, until the year plays out and I have to decide whether James deserves a D (and a future) because he's really smart and wonderful or an F because he didn't do any work. 

I do not believe that people who vote on educational issues really understand that some teachers put their heart and soul into their students, and how when their students fail, it rips our hearts out.  They see our summers, and the union's stance.  I see James.

My neighbors see a murderer - a murderer they expected, based on the newspaper comments, because he is an African American male.  I see James, a bright-eyed kid with parents who wanted the world for him but who were unable to deliver.  I see a kid who didn't come to class despite the fact I built my whole curriculum to appeal to him. 

Obviously, his name wasn't James.  It was something else, but he's real, and I'm not the only teacher who has loved - still loves- a child now facing a 30-year sentence for murder.  He loves me too.  He writes me from jail - letters that would meet standard on our state assessment.  A joy that aches.

Did you know that you can't mail books to an inmate, but you can if they're mailed by Amazon or Barnes and Noble?  I know that now.  I wonder if he recognizes theme, and purpose.  I wonder if he has the confidence to open the thing up and start, even though the print is small and the pages many.

So here's my response to Ms.  Munro - What would you want for these kids if they were your children?  What if your child was a tenth grader starting to make bad choices, and you were absolutely unable to change his path?

I know what I would do.  I would hope to God there was some teacher who would show my child the way.  I would hope there was someone, who probably owned a house and had a not-too-used Saturn station wagon, who thought reading was easy and college a possibility, I would hope that person, that guide, would pick my child up and save his life.  I would hope that someone would do for my child what I was unable to do.

I didn't save James.  His parents may have hoped, but I failed.  I tried, but on that morning, hyped up on drugs, when he shot a man for $22, he didn't stop to think, "Ms. B used Othello to teach me: think before you act."  He didn't think that.  I can't begin to imagine what he thought.  I didn't save him.  But I didn't badmouth him, either.  I put on my cape, took a flying leap, and crashed.  It hurt, but I'd rather crash than just complain.

And the picture?  Yes.  That's James.  And because I know him I can tell you that the look on his face is saying, "I know what you're thinking but I'm not like that.  That guy who killed the man.  That's not really who I am.  I'm the guy who was absolutely amazing reading the part of Othello."



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I often wonder about teachers who have problems with students like James or the *** kids that Ms. Monro blogged about. I've only had three students that I can think of in my 13 years of teaching that I thought were truly poor excuses for human beings, kids that I may have blogged negatively about if I ever blogged about them at all. Three out of, what, thousands? I almost always love my students as if they were my own children, and I feel really bad for teachers that don't see their students that way. This job would really suck if I constantly saw/looked for the worst in the faces in my classroom.

And this speaks to the 'data' discussion below as can't quantify that ability in a teacher. There is no chart or rubric for how much you love your kids and treat them like true individual humans, yet this is such an important part of being a good teacher, of creating the rapport that allows challenging students to want to learn something from you in the first place.

I think about my 'James' a lot, though. I had one (maybe two) as well. She didn't like me very much, though. I don't think I really reached her at all...

Yes, Mark. I see now, and I agree with you. One of the first pieces of data I gathered on him was that he was really smart, something contradicted by his crime, obviously, which was senseless and which he can barely remember doing.

I wonder how school could have captured him - he showed up for track practice, why didn't he show up for class? I'd love to solve that mystery.

And even if he was absent on test day, you still had data on him. That's another of my issues with "data," which is that too many people assume it is only the quantifiable. Data can include observation. I bet that when you examined his writing, you were able to gather observational data which helped you guide how you responded to him... that is also a valid use of data which is harder to transform into a number and therefore less palatable to those who want to use data to make those sweeping decisions I mention in my last comment. I'm not anti-data, but I'm anti-data-abuse-and-misuse.

No, I'm not meaning we shouldn't use data in the classroom, I do as well. I mean that when outsiders look at a school as a percentage or an average score, and then make sweeping policy changes or decisions based on that rather than realizing that the data represents individual learners with individual needs. I think classroom teachers who use data are able to recognize that because they face the individuals each day.

But I use data. Maybe that was my problem. Actually, I think he was absent on test days, so it wasn't available data either way.

Just today, in fact, I taught inference because their MAP scores revealed they didn't know what it was.

I guess I figure that if the state assessment is something they have to pass - in four weeks - in order to graduate, it's part of my job to coach them over that hurdle, through that hoop, whatever you want to call it.

And it is sad that there are still people who will blame you for not doing enough for James. Which is hogwash... you probably did more for him than you will ever realize.

It is so frustrating when people start talking data data data, they need to be reminded we are talking about people here...real people living in the real world, not figures on a spreadsheet.

Dang, you're fast! I just posted this!

I don't know. I don't know if we try to be too much. I think we might hope to be more than we can possibly be, but I don't think we can try too much.

A life is a life is a life. The kind of life someone has behind bars might be a better life for having read Othello. That's what I try to keep in mind.

Great post, Kristin. Thanks for sharing what was obviously a very painful story.

Two thoughts:

1. I wonder if sometimes we try to be too much for our students.

2. I'm really glad I teach third grade. I don't think I have the poise and composure to deal with what you guys deal with.

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