How our backgrounds affect our engagement

Here I’m responding to Laurie Clarcq’s post to flteach of Jan. 14. The comment made by a list member mentioned his students laziness. That set off a furor. Laurie responded favorably to a post that many thought too critical of the original poster, so she apologized but went on to explain her visceral reaction. If you want to see a copy of her post, let me know; I’m sure Laurie wouldn’t mind me sending it to you.
I’m going to word this to Laurie directly.
Your abcde statements, declarations, really, reflect so well the attitudes in my school. To be honest, I think the religious character of my school supports a lot of these attitudes, but I am biased that way. Others use their religion to be understanding and patient and non-judgmental. Anyway, the blindered nature of so many teachers’ views hit home with me; you really can’t discuss these issues with them. They are very skittish about being “challenged”, and woe betide the student who appears to be challenging them. The control issues are paramount, reflected in the rigid seating charts, pass restrictions, detention slips, etc., most of which are not too effective, at least from my observations. But there is an overall attitude that “kids these days” [my favorite phrase, you know] just aren’t measuring up. There are some wonderful exceptions, of course.
I was not a particularly good student; I graduated h.s. with a B average, getting lots of As and a F or D here and there. Who would know from that “average”? Teachers like me. I read a lot and always asked good questions and paid attention. In language classes I was the one who tried to speak the language. But most of our teachers were excellent students and lots of our students are; I think there is as much resentment of “do-nothing” kids on the part of the teachers as there is resentment toward the teachers on the part of the students.
Both of my children had problems in school, behavioral for my son and learning disabilities for my daughter. Just today she didn’t know what it meant to stick your head in the over but that that wouldn’t work with an electric oven. She didn’t understand. She doesn’t have the fund of knowledge. She will engage you in discussions of politics but needs a lot explained to her. She does not read except material that deals with her children’s problems; that she read voraciously. She lost 80 pounds at one time and has kept it off until another recent bout of medications and now she has only five pounds to go to get down to fighting weight. And she’s a really good mom. She cannot work due to psychological and learning impairments. Our son is working on a doctorate next (he’ll finish his masters this year) and as a veteran should get some preference in hiring. He absorbs information, mainly politics, technology, and sports, like the proverbial sponge. He graduated with a D average. His poly-sci profs still like talking with him 15 years after his degree. Both my children were victims of childhood abuse.
I guess these experiences, plus years working in the mental health field where I consulted with schools, plus my wife’s experiences growing up Black in a segregated society where so many lost opportunity, have shaped my view of these matters and it is very trying for me to read the words of teachers I regard as smug. Your post, Laurie, helped me put into a framework of why I constantly engage with students on a face-to-face, personal basis, making comments about them, getting personal with them, and so on. Disengagement is fatal. You disengage to focus on your computer or your lesson plan and they disengage. Some of the things I do I would not advise just any teacher to do b/c I’m basing what I do on 20 years experience in counseling and social work among very troubled and hostile people; kids at a private Catholic school attracting upper-middle-class families are not what you’d call difficult. But “do it at your own level” is what I think you would say, Laurie, just like the fl you teach, teach at your level, don’t worry about being at the Superior rating on the ACTFL scale. Work on it but don’t obsess over it or feel self-conscious. I remember being on television that was seen by the whole community, not just students, and they brought in Russian woman from the U.S.S.R. who spoke no English (she had a translator) and there I was. I plunged ahead and it turned out fine. Courage, mes amis!
So I’ll keep in mind to give examples and rationales for some of the things I do in the classroom to make my kids feel OK. Last year one boy was the classic “I ain’t doin’ nothin’ no how” kid, almost a cholo using his school desk as a low-rider. He even sagged one day!!! You have no idea what that looked like at my school NOBODY DRESSES LIKE THAT. But last year I let him sit with a buddy who was pretty good in Latin and I maintained him with a high GPA all along. He wound up in my class this year (I split my second year with the grammar queen) and again he had help with others, but I noticed he sat with a group of very good students. Then I noticed he turned in all his assignments, even though during class he tried to look like he wasn’t doing anything. Then one day last week, he left his notebook in my class and in looking through to find a name, I read a brief note he’s written for his religion class, about finding new friends and changing his attitudes. He is an adopted Native American boy, very big and handsome and cool, and someone thought he might make it in our selective school and he has. According to the counselors, he has come up. So a couple of us teachers brought him along and now he is functioning at a higher level. That’s what the job is, I thought.

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