It ends up the little things, those fleeting moments, aren’t so little after all? Sometimes I miss the significance of a small moment. I’m all wrapped up in my own concerns and completely miss the message being communicated. It has happened before, it will happen again, I even coach my future self to be on guard, but when the moment arrives, I often fail. This one was epic.
It was two minutes after the first bell which means I have three minutes before my next class starts. I do not have an allocated classroom so I’m what you call a roaming teacher. Today I need to swing by my office (which is in another building) for supplies, push my way through the throngs of students to get to my class, and not spill my coffee in the process. How do I manage the stress?
I am scrambling to set up my computer, turn on the overhead, take roll in my head, shift through the notes for today’s lecture, find an empty space for my handouts, and deal with a few students who missed class last week. This makes me a little crazy because I have a detailed on-line syllabus. It has links to every article we read in class, every page discussed in the textbook, activities, assessments, video clips, and concepts covered, all organized by date. It is the students responsibility to check the syllabus first, ask questions second, or better yet check in with their homework partner. This is not my reality. The students believe I have everything memorized, “What did I miss on Tuesday Mrs. O,” I try not to roll my eyes. My students are carrying a heavy load, so I sort through my brain, and try to answer their questions, keeping one eye on the clock. There is another student lingering around my desk so I direct the ones that missed class back to the syllabus for specifics. I can see the lingering student has concerns…
This is just another day of high school, if I’m late posting absences so be it, I’ll get an email, or a phone call. If the class starts a few minutes late no harm, no foul, in fact I believe the talks in-between classes can be the most important. Sometimes I start the week with a check in, and we let ourselves get sidetracked by presidential debates that contradict Catholic Social Teaching, gun violence, water quality, or the credibility of the SAT. I don’t have the answers to all these questions, but I offer a safe place for students to voice their concerns, if I ignore the person in front of me, then I’m not doing my job. So I stop the busy chatter going on in my head and try to listen. There is one minute before the bell rings.
The is a mature and conscientious student. She is concerned about a project, the one I’m introducing today, and I slip into a mild panic. There is talk in the corridors she says, she doesn’t like what she is hearing, and she wants me to discard the project. This is a new class for me and my plan was to do exactly what was done in the past. I normally make amendments to the curriculum after I’ve become familiar enough to know what works and what doesn’t. As I listen my panic looms larger, I’m trying to make mental adjustments to the project on the spot, but in doing so I’m not really listening to what the student is trying to say. The bell rings, I sweep the student back to her seat, and begin.
I did many things wrong this day and I did a few things right. As I introduced the project I did use selective language to minimize the part of the project that seemed concerning to my student. I did not tell the student I was making adjustments, I did not tell her that I understood what she was saying, and worst of all I did not have her name right. I make a seating chart on the first day of class. I use this to memorize the names of new students. Unfortunately she changed her seat without telling me and I memorized this particular student under the wrong name. Note to self, just ask, saves a lot of time and embarrassment in the future.
I sent the wrong student an email, asking to meet and discuss this further, checking to see if she would like to speak to the class about her concerns, reinstating what I thought she was communicating, but it never got to the student with the concerns. The student that did receive the email was confused, but politely tried to respond, which confused me all the more. Epic fail. I made more adjustments to the project for my next block. But like a virus the problem spread.
The next day I was summoned into an early morning meeting with the administrators. For a brief moment I felt like throwing in the towel, maybe I’ll just spend my days lounging in bed, blogging about the status of my toenails. I spent all summer reading through the materials for this class, meetings with the previous teacher, studying the textbook, organizing a new syllabus. I tell myself, this is your job, and you can be flexible (I tend to lean to the rigid).
We ended up revising the project for next year. The next day I invited the class into a religious discussion so everyone could voice their concerns, I talked privately with the student so she knew she was heard, and I asked for student feedback on the revised project. I think everyone is feeling better. I know I am. As a teacher of world religions I never want to offend my students, we have much more to learn from each other than we have to fear, especially if we take the time to listen. That was the real lesson. If I can put aside my agenda, in order to understand someone else on a deeper level, then we both win. I believe that is the whole point of living.