Wednesday, June 8, 2011

No more teachers' dirty looks!

"Mrs. Kim, you look just like my mom in that dress!" my student told me. I smiled, and she added, "Except my mom's not fat." I smiled a little harder and a lot more stiffly.

Of course, this came from one of my favorite students.  When she left after our last class together, I cried.  Then I had to pull myself right back together because she was back!

"Whoops!" she said.  "Forgot my umbrella."  She smiled and scooted out the door for the second time.

Mrs. Kim, you may resume crying now.

This post is dedicated to the last day of school and to the teachers who are left behind today.

Being a teacher is a catch-22 position in so many ways, particularly for teachers of very young children.  The children don't understand that their teachers are temporary, passing from the center of their lives after a brief stay, often nine short months.  They don't understand that the learning they need to do is hard, hard work.  They don't understand any extenuating circumstances beyond their own relationship with you, their teacher.  And they have been forced into this student position, not asking for it, much like they have been forced into their relationship as the child of their parents.  And they simply don't understand that teachers just don't have the biological predisposition to love them the way a parent does.

The teachers, on the other hand, are acutely aware of the difference between parent and teacher.  They know why they are employed.  And they know that the overall expectations are unfair--they should magically fill the child's head with knowledge without the child becoming weary, discouraged, aware of difficulty, bored, or unhappy.

And, let's face it, sometimes children, even our own, can be very hard to love. They can insult ("Mrs. Kim, do you have a baby in there?").  They can frustrate ("Saejik!  You are nine-years-old!  WHAT POSSESSED YOU TO STICK THAT PENCIL UP YOUR NOSE?!"). They can perplex ("He's just afraid of your face. He'll get used to you"--Said three-year-old cried every time he saw me for four months before announcing to his mother that I was his favorite teacher. I still don't understand this.). And they can push buttons ("I could have done my homework, but I know my mom can't understand your Korean when you call her.").

But still, I think that overall we teachers really try to love our students.  We try to like them, to support them, and see them through.  And when our time with our students comes to an end, we wonder if we did enough.  Were we kind enough? tough enough? specific enough? challenging enough? forgiving enough?

I miss teaching in a more full time schedule and sometimes feel that my current minor duties tutoring and editing don't really affect many people.  And so I was surprised when I found my work in one of my students' papers recently.  It was a reflection paper that we were laboring over.  He likes to state facts, and his idealistic teacher wanted him to reflect on changes to his attitudes after an oral history assignment.  Jay (not his real name) just didn't want to talk about feelings or attitudes.  We settled on talking about life lessons

He chose to say that his oral history interview taught him about persistence.  And after giving examples from his interview, he threw in an example from his own life--another paper that we had toiled over and slogged through together.  In the case of that paper, Jay often thought we were done only to have me come back with a point that he had missed, a section with inappropriate grammar, an area with ineffectual logic.  When he finally turned it in, he had the second highest grade among all the classes of that level.  He wrote in this reflection paper that the last paper had taught him that if he persevered, he would succeed.

I was absent in this reference, and that is how it should be.  Yes, I held his hand.  Yes, I forced him to continue.  Yes, I threatened, cajoled, modeled, and revised.  But when it was done, they were his words, and he was proud.  And that is why I am there--just as the educational metaphor suggests--to scaffold during the building and to be removed upon completion.

I am lucky in such circumstances to know what effect I had on my student.  I wonder, in similar circumstances, if my teachers knew the impact they had on me.  They influenced everything from the trivial (Did Mrs. Gibson know that her offhand comment about my jeans not being a dress on the first day of first grade would cause me to choose dresses for the first day of the next eight grades of my life?) to the lifechanging (Did Mrs. Montgomery know that her comment, "Well, I don't expect you all to go to Harvard, but you could," would inspire me to apply and go to Harvard Summer School when the notice came?).  Did they know the long effects of encouragement?  Did our student teacher Mr. Michener know that his kindness made second grade almost bearable?  Did Mrs. London-Gibbon know that laughing at my NOT FUNNY state capital jokes was just so encouraging?  Did Mrs. Galmoff know that her listening to the myriads of oral book reports would inspire me to do something with my own students, one of whom was inspired to read 831 pages of English (he speaks Korean) in a single month?

And I thank my sons' teachers, too.  Do Mrs. Haupt and Miss Davis know how thankful I am that they laugh at my big son's not funny jokes or how happy he is to tell such jokes to them?  Does Dr. Clinton know how much confidence those AR tests have given my big son and how thankful I am that she has found a way for him to come more often (and that he actually wants to come more often because apparently he either wants to do things every day or not at all)?  Does Mrs. Bologna know how grateful I am that she always smiled when she saw my little son coming, even when she had to pry his sobbing body from mine?  Does Mrs. Emahizer know how very excited the little son gets when he sees her in the community ("They let her out of school, Mommy!  Really!")?

And, if these teachers find themselves dismissed for the summer and feel wonderful, I applaud them.  Or, if they, like me, sit down in the car and cry over all that was and wasn't, I am with them too.

God bless your summer, and we'll see you in the fall!

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