Blue Suede Shoes

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 11 2010

The Best Question…

The past two days, I wasn’t able to gauge where I stood, really, with my students. They were, for the most part, attentive, well-behaved, and quiet. Very few people even volunteered to call out answers to questions like, “What’s your favorite color?” I did think I was projecting a no-nonsense attitude, but I couldn’t tell for sure.

But today. Oh, today. One of my classes got a little feisty, and I shut down some complaints about the syllabus. They thought it was an outrage they couldn’t eat in class, couldn’t put their heads down, couldn’t use the pencil sharpener during class. I told them if they were eating or sleeping or sharpening their pencils, they wouldn’t be using their learning time wisely. Then, a student, bless his heart, asked the words that were music to my ears: Ms. —, why you so strict?

Why am I so strict, C.? Let me tell you why (and I actually went into this impassioned spiel in class): I am strict because I have high expectations of you. I am strict because you need to learn the material for my class and also because you need to learn what it means to be responsible and professional young men and women. I’ll be honest with you – you might not use geometry every single day of your life when you leave high school. But you will need to be a responsible person every single day. The last thing I want is for you to walk out my door at the end of the school year not knowing geometry and not knowing how to behave appropriately. And I will not be that teacher who lets you get away with things and doesn’t care about your behavior because if I do that, then you aren’t learning what you need to learn. (If things continue along this vein, where I have to repeatedly address proper behavior in a “strict” way, I can’t wait to see what they say on my classroom culture survey…)

I think I actually got through to some of them. One girl in the back said, “I already like you better than [some teacher I couldn't make out].”┬áThere was some backtalk about how I need to be more lenient, and I indulged it a little, but shut it down with “I will be more lenient when you show me you deserve it. When you show me you can behave like the young adults you are, when you show me you can always be on time, always have your materials, always turn in things on time, then I might be lenient. Until then, I will be on you about everything.”

Really, the ball is in their court. And that’s what I hope they realize is always true: they are responsible for the choices they make. Every one of them has the potential to graduate from high school and go on to higher education. I truly believe that. But if some of them don’t start focusing better in class – and it is only the third day! – they are going to waste that potential, one wasted minute of class time at a time.

I only wish my cell phone hadn’t rung during class while I was giving my lecture on responsibility. Talk about credibility-crushing. It was the worst timing: I had just confiscated a student’s cell phone, and then, the next bullet point on my syllabus had been, “Because I expect you to follow the rules and policies, I will follow the rules and policies.” I justified myself by saying that I, as a teacher, needed to have my cell phone on me in case of emergencies, which was kind of a weak argument. My roommate told me I should have said, “Yes, I have my cell phone here, and I apologize that it disrupted our class time, but notice that I did not have it out and was not using it during class.” Next time.

Not that there will be a next time.

2 Responses

  1. Betty

    I really, really like your stance! Keep it up. All of us need to be part of insisting that each person takes responsibility for their own choices and attitude. I am soooo tired of our “poor me, victim mentality” society. Keep up the good work. Best wishes,

  2. Allan

    Dear Blue Suede Shoes,

    Well done, well said. Day in and day out the teachers dna requires the wearing of many hats. I know that parenting, behavior and attitude 101 are no where to be found on any course curriculum or academic syllabus, but you as the teacher are held to adept and deal with them irregardless; for that reason and many others like it, you should be recognized for your efforts, commitments and passion for our kids. Parenting is difficult, but teaching in 2010 is every bit as challenging; both are important, both carve out the character of our kids…unfortunately societies rewards for the teacher side of the effort is pretty tethered.

    I thank you for your commitment. There are many of us out there supporting your efforts…..keep it up, our kids (and by extension…..us) will become the beneficiaries of your work.

    Thank you….!

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erstwhile math teacher, current student


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