While I was in my freshman literature class in college, my professor read out the opening sentence to my first essay as a model to the class of how not to start an essay. I remember the moment well; although he didn’t name names, my cheeks blazed red as I recognized my writing; I wanted to disappear. Luckily, I’ve forgotten that first line now, but I know the cliche it represented (of the “Since the dawn of time” variety). As a teacher, I would never do what my professor did. Never ever.
However, I have to admit that I never wrote another such opening line again.
What I did do is sign up for another course with that professor. I remember another moment in his office where I sat uncomfortably in a chair facing his after having asked him for some direction on the term’s major paper. Dr. C had thrown out a question in class as a suggestion for a topic (is the comix form of Maus appropriate and adequate as a medium to teach the Holocaust?), and I had jumped on it…and then approached him for help. Showing up to his office hours was already a stretch for me, and I didn’t get much from him in return other than a “get yourself to the library” response.
And you know what? I did. This was before the internet, back in the days of card catalogs, when dusty big volumes and a tiny, badly lit study-carrel were marked out as “mine” simply because I had logged hours–HOURS–getting to know their intricacies. I knew the specific graffiti messages on each desk and the shifts each work-study student held at the circulation desk. It was as a college sophomore that I got to know how an index and introduction worked, how to skim and pull out quotations, how to patiently plod through the important stuff that required more close and careful reading. Turning in that paper, receiving a surprised yet pleased response from that professor, being invited to submit it for publication in the department’s journal, and then being invited to join the editorial board for that journal…these are the things that taught me how to really be a student, a reader, a writer, and in the long run…a teacher.
My professor was not that inspirational in his classroom delivery. Don’t get me wrong; he was very knowledgeable and enthusiastic in his own way. It wasn’t his relational capacity that made me work harder for him, however. It was just his direct, simple, sometimes flat presentation of things that made me realize this was the way it was: I just had to buckle down and get to work if I wanted to find success. I wanted to succeed, and I knew I had a chance if I worked, but I had to work hard. Once you realize that, it’s pretty simple. You either do it or you don’t. There’s not much more to say.
I try to keep that in mind when I get stressed out about the students who aren’t doing a DAMN thing in my classes. There are one or two seniors every year who, by the time they get to my class, have reached the point of (apparent) no return. I try and try and try, but they give nothing. Every year, I tear my hair out over this one or those two, when meanwhile, there are 90 or so other students who are plodding along, doing what is asked of them or even rising to new challenges. Those damn exceptions, however, make me crazy. Why can’t they just do it? (And by it, I mean anything.)
In case you think I’m exaggerating, let me give you today’s example. The assignment was to watch a movie version of the book we just finished, make note of five differences between the movie and the book, and then write one statement of the overall effect of those changes. Sound too hard? After the movie, we discussed the changes as a class, and I made sure every student had a copy of the worksheet in front of them as we reviewed it together. My repeat offender student couldn’t handle it; he copied his neighbor’s responses in the last five minutes of class by looking over his shoulder.
Sigh. This blog is not about the negative. Here is my point: something I see too often in the (very affluent) school where I work is that parents enable their children by saving them from real consequences of their choices. The stories I could tell might surprise you, but suffice it to say that as an English teacher, one of the things that bothers me most is when parents write their children’s papers for them or hire tutors who will do that. It’s the opposite of tough love; it shows students that it’s ok to choose to take the easy way out and tells them they don’t really have to work to find success. The repeat offender student has a parent who is currently tearing her hair out over his lack of effort, but I have to say that from everything I see, she has set him up for this scenario entirely. This isn’t to say it’s her fault; it’s his, but he won’t take responsibility for that until he experiences real consequences, which he hasn’t yet because she keeps saving him.
Free’s teacher emailed me today with a follow-up to her progress report. She’s in second grade, and she’s not following directions or listening or paying attention in class. The teacher she has now is one she also had as a kindergartner, when her confidence was low. Back then, her reports praised how hard she worked at being a good student. Now, with her confidence up, that has changed. Free has acknowledged that she gets distracted, but she hasn’t yet taken full responsibility. Like with her dramatics with me at home, she wants to shift attention away from her part in it and onto friends who bait her, her “strict” teacher, or her schedule that makes her tired.
Free isn’t taking responsibility, and it’s my job to teach her to do so–and that being a good student is her most important (only) job right now. I know that her teacher writing me that email is a request for support at home; her teacher isn’t finding success and needs me and Free’s dad to back her up. I know that if we don’t figure this out now, in the second grade, the seed will grow and grow and turn into a big ugly weed of avoidance and blaming. I won’t let that happen if I can do anything to stop it.
Free has a sleepover scheduled for Saturday night that has literally been months in the making. She regularly complains that I don’t give her enough of this sort of thing. I was happy to finally schedule it and put that complaint to rest. Well, guess what? If she doesn’t get an improved report on Friday, there will be no sleepover. If that happens, I will pay the price over the weekend, but I’m willing and ready to take that risk. The teacher in me knows the problem will only grow if I don’t take action now, and I’d much rather have her miss a sleepover in second grade than be on the verge of failing a class (or worse) in high school.
The situation at hand may take many lost sleepovers to correct, but I’m up for it. Tough love isn’t fun for anyone, but it is sometimes necessary, and it’s very often effective. The trick, I think, is to know when to employ it so that, looking back, it will be clear why it worked. When I look back on my own learning in college, I can take pride in the fact that when I was given a choice, I stepped up rather than backed away from a challenge. I want Free to be able to eventually take ownership over becoming a good student. If it takes her a while to do so, that will be on her too, but it’s my job as a parent to give her clear parameters for what is expected, what will be rewarded, and what will not be tolerated. I don’t want her to experience unnecessary hardship, but I absolutely want her to know the difference between hardship and healthy limits/expectations.
Ultimately, it’s the same line I’m still negotiating in my own life. Knowing when to get help or take some time to take care of myself vs. knowing when to stop over-indulging or babying myself is sometimes a daily struggle. I’m lucky enough to have known some actual hardship in my life (although of course, everything is relative), so I can check myself when necessary. If Free is lucky, her learning experiences will roll out in controlled ways. I get to be the puppeteer in this one. Let’s see how it goes.