Putting Humanity Back in the Classroom

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Teachers are humans. We are real flesh and blood people, made up of thoughts, feelings, memories, and all of the complexity that entails. And, guess what? So are our students. When my students come to me at the beginning of the year, they do not come as blank slates. A freshly packaged canvas awaiting the imprint of my craft. No, more often they come to me battered by life, their needs not having been properly met. They don’t care about the words of dead old white guys. They care about how they’re going to get enough hours at their minimum wage job to help their single mother pay rent. They care about whether or not their dad is going to throw more punches when they bring home a report card with more failing grades. They come to me with broken hearts and shattered dreams. They come looking for something meaningful, moving, life changing. And that something isn’t going to be found in a 26 lined essay; it isn’t going to be found in the pages of Macbeth or Beowulf or Animal Farm. At least not without having first found a heart-to-heart connection with someone who sees them and sees their need, who sees their pain, their worry, their imperfections and loves them anyway. Believes in them anyway. But there isn’t any room for that in our classrooms, not if teachers are to prepare kids for the next standardized test. Not if teachers are to strive toward the education system’s picture of perfection.

Our education system wants us to be something else entirely, not human, not the perfectly imperfect beings that we are. Teachers are expected to be superhuman. Extra. Their students should be essay writing, bubble filling, fact regurgitating robots, subservient to a system that undermines the cultivation of critical thinking and individuality. We do not teach our kids to find their way in the world. We teach them to pass a test. Because that brings in the tax dollars. But, damn it, my kids are not some numbers behind a dollar sign. They’re not a grade in the gradebook. They aren’t the “meets expectations” or “approaching” they receive from some anonymous scorer. They are passionate, talented, messy people with the kinds of gifts and intellect that can’t accurately be measured by a multiple choice test.

Sometimes it takes criticism to open one’s eyes:

For a long time I bought into this system, because I knew the rules, knew how to work within it to get what I wanted. But, recently I was told just what this system thinks of people like me. You know, the real kind. The kind that doesn’t work on an algorithm that instantaneously computes the best way to adjust lessons that have fallen apart because senior year is hectic. It would have been one thing to just receive negative feedback. But, this is more than that. It’s about being told, “of course I want to see you at your best, so I would like your feedback.” Yet, coming to observe after senior portraits, a survey that was sprung on us last minute, and a fire drill that took up half a class. It is about the fact that I offered my feedback. Said it wouldn’t be a good time, that I needed a few class periods to practice that thing called “monitoring and adjusting.” What I received in return? Silence and an observation the very first class after everything has fallen apart. So, I do what I can. Fumble through. Hope for the best, all the while feeling like I was set up for failure. If this was a system that truly wanted teachers to succeed, then it would not be about how poorly I “monitor and adjust” and provide “instruction” without circumstances being factored in… because, that is life. Circumstances change. Do not judge me the same way that you are judging the person who had a week of no interruptions. That doesn’t help me to succeed. It doesn’t make me any better for my students. And it doesn’t help them succeed either. It paints a flawed picture of success and expectation for them.

But, then we already do that don’t we? We give them all the same tests and force them to pass. Tell them that test determines whether or not they’re worthy of graduation. Who does that benefit? Because it doesn’t benefit my kid with testing anxiety.  It doesn’t benefit my kid who came to America two years ago and still struggles with basic sentence structures. It doesn’t help my kid who comes to school hungry and can’t concentrate over the sound of his stomach growling. T-TESS and the STAAR were made for hypothetical people; the people we would be if we were perfect. But, they deny us our bad days. They deny us our struggles. They deny us the battles we fight that make us so damn beautiful.

Holding onto the heart of the classroom:

I’m tired of it. When I first received my disheartening evaluation I told myself, “it’s just a job. It doesn’t define me.” But, that’s a lie. This isn’t just a job to me. I care on a deeply personal level. Because that is how it should be when you work in a profession with such close human interaction. My immediate impulse was to shut down, to stop caring, to revolt against authority. That isn’t fair though. My kids deserve better than that. So, I am going to keep taking the time to write my kids personal letters that let them know they’re seen and heard, even if that means I don’t get around to that intervention log. I am going to continue giving my kids choices so that they can learn how to face a decision and accept the outcome, even if that means that I lose points for “classroom management”. I am going to keep believing in the kids who think everyone has given up on them, even if that means being regarded as naive. I am going to keep listening to their stories and validating their feelings, even if that means we don’t get around to talking about parallel sentence structure. We are going to read things that reflect their reality. We are going to have conversations about the tough subjects. We are going to have fun together. We are going to keep doing crazy things like learning inferences by solving murder mysteries.

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And if any of this makes me a “bad teacher” according to some ridiculous rubric, then so be it. Because I am bringing humanity back into education, maybe not on some grand scale, but at least in my classroom. I won’t ever pretend to be perfect in front of them. They deserve to see my humanity. They deserve to see someone make mistakes and own those mistakes. They deserve to see someone struggle but still make it through. They deserve to see someone coping with their bad moods. They deserve to have a complete picture. They deserve to know that they do not have to strive toward perfection. They just have to strive toward being kind, motivated, compassionate people. My kids will leave at the end of the year knowing that they had a voice in that classroom, knowing that they were trusted, knowing that they were loved. Of course, I hope they learn how to be critical thinkers, eloquent speakers/writers, and active readers, but that will happen as it happens. I won’t be that person that forces them to fit into a box they were never meant to fit into because there is plenty of that in the world already.

I am making a conscious decision to stop caring about how well I measure up on some rubric and start caring more about how much heart I bring into the classroom.

4 Thoughts

  1. I love this! It does sound like such a cliche, but my own experience has been that finding a point of connection and inspiring a desire to learn is what leads to success in the long run. I detested English and history and more or less all humanities subjects in high school and would have done entirely STEM subjects if English had not been compulsory. It was not until many years later that I discovered I actually enjoyed reading and researching and writing and creating – and was good at all of those – in a context which encouraged self-directed learning. I ended up with a great deal more skills and knowledge in the setting of a hobby than I’d ever acquired at school or even university. I admire you for trying to achieve that with your own students and I’m sure they will be very grateful to you later in their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am totally a lover of STEM as well, but I hate that it had to take so long for you to develop a love of the humanities. The priorities within the education system are just… flawed, misguided. Teachers aren’t as free as we need to be in order to really captivate students and guide them to a love of learning, regardless of the subject matter.

      I really appreciate your comment, it’s always nice to hear about the paths we each take to owning our own learning. Because learning is inherently a beautiful thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this comment. I’m definitely happy to do this job, even if the system is broken, and even if it’s only a stepping stone for me. I was just thinking about how much I miss my kids/students this morning. Good timing. 🙂

    Like

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