From the Mouths of Teachers

A couple of things got me thinking about this, about how what teachers say can have a lasting impact, for better or for worse.  If I think about it too much, it kind of scares me.

We reported back to work Friday.  (Yes, Friday—the 13th, no less.  Must have been Jason Voorhees’s brilliant idea.)  Anyway, our principal was a coach for years, so every year we start out with a locker room pep-talk, and one of the things he brought up was how defeated his own daughter had felt by school, and how the encouragement of a few teachers got her through.  At that point, a colleague leaned over and said that her own daughter had heard quite a different message from one of her teachers.  The message wasn’t directed at her, but it disturbed her deeply.  Apparently her math teacher stood in front of an entire class and said he didn’t know why they kept sending Hispanic students to his calculus class.  He said if they’d just send him a roomful of white and Asian kids with good parents, he’d be a lot happier.  The girl in question is a white girl who works hard, so apparently she was on the A-list, but my God!  (And yes, there were Latino kids in the room.)  I’m stunned that he still has a job.  I can’t begin to fathom what he was thinking.

It makes my blood boil sometimes to hear the things my ACE kids have been told by teachers.  I blogged about a boy at the end of last school year who had struck fear into the heart of a much bigger boy for mouthing off to me.  The ACE kid is fiercely loyal to me, I think in large part because so many teachers had called him a criminal and told him he was destined for jail.  The kids all told me how mean this kid could be, but I have never seen that side of him (well, except for a couple of seconds in my defense).  He knows how I see him—full of so much energy he makes me crazy, but tenacious and devoted to those he cares about.  I think it’s important to him that I only see him that way, so the behavior problems he’s famous for just don’t happen in my classroom.  That’s far from an isolated incident.  I was stunned when a teacher marched into my office and demanded to know how the hell I tolerated a particular girl who was disrupting her class daily.  Then she proceeded to use a variety of colorful words to describe her, but she also focused on the girl’s hair and clothing (Goth).  In ACE, the girl was a star student.  She did quality work on time, and because she is a leader among that group, she kept others on task as well.  I had never thought of her as anything but a top-notch leader, and for us, she was exactly that.  The next day, the girl reported that the teacher has told her she shouldn’t bother coming to class, so she wasn’t going to go anymore.  I told her that I’d talked to the teacher and I was surprised by the behavior that had been described to me.  The girl shrugged.  Yes, it was all true.  The teacher been “bitchy” to her from day one, so the girl set out to earn the teacher’s contempt.  I’m not justifying anyone’s bad behavior, but I also think if the teachers had approached these kids differently, they’d have had a different experience with them.

I came home Friday to a friend request on Facebook from a kid I haven’t seen since 1998.  I accepted and then looked at her page, where she mentioned reading what I’d written in her 1997 yearbook and how much it meant to her.  Whew!  I’m glad I take the time to really try to personalize those things, which isn’t always easy considering I’m often scribbling it out between classes.  I have no idea what I wrote.  I’m just glad it seemed to have been the right thing.  Years ago, a former-student-turned-teacher/forensics coach (you know who you are) wrote an article about things I’d said to him at a speech meet.  It was a moment I might easily have forgotten.  Again, thank God I apparently didn’t screw the pooch.

I remember the teachers who had faith in me, especially Mr. Nelson, my junior high English teacher who is retired but subs for me a few times a year.  I remember Mrs. Willis telling me that I was fun to direct in plays because I was just like plastic and could be molded into so many parts.  She also said teaching kids like me was like having to go to the bathroom really badly and finally getting to, because I really wanted to know all the things she had to teach.  (Not a pretty image, but certainly a visceral one.)  I also remember the social studies teacher who took one look at me during arena registration, grabbed another teacher’s full roster and crossed a name out to make room for mine.  “I’m not taking her,” he said.  I didn’t want him either.  He definitely felt girls should be quiet and keep their heads down.  I could be an arrogant little shit, I admit, but I also had potential he obviously didn’t see.  Besides, I only went into arrogant mode when teachers got in a snit if I challenged them—not as in being disrespectful but as in committing the crime of thinking for myself.  God, give me a kid who challenges me.  At least he’s engaged. Teachers loved me or hated me.

Now that I’m the teacher, I’ve certainly had kids I’ve really struggled with, but if they show the slightest sign of remorse for treating me badly or make any attempt to engage again, I’m fully ready to give things another try.  I may not always like kids, but I love them.  There was the team captain who mounted a full-on insurrection against me and the assistant coach one year.  We booted him from the team for a year, and when he came back all contrition, I suspected manipulation, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.  I still don’t know whether it was an act, but his senior year went well between us.  There was another kid who was so outrageously verbally abusive (for fully five minutes, nonstop) that he was permanently removed from my class, and that was just as well, but I certainly didn’t respond in kind as he shouted obscenities at me.  If I can have a kid repeatedly call me a fucking bitch without saying anything harsher than, “I think we need to settle this in the office,” you’d think a math teacher could keep from maligning an entire ethnicity with no apparent provocation.

The point being that teachers have a lot of power.  What they say to kids matters.  I’m sure I’ve said things that hurt without even realizing it.  Like I said, it’s scary when you think about it.

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Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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