Right before Thanksgiving break, I attended the NCTE (National Council for Teachers of English) conference in Houston, Texas. (Thanks, HDTA!) I LOVE attending conferences because it reinvigorates my teaching. There is something amazing about being surrounded by passionate educators who all geek out on the same things you do. For instance, Laura Graves and I were able to hear author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speak and then met her after for a book signing. Later we listened to author David Levithan and then had the pleasure of speaking with him afterward.
We attended workshops and sessions that inspired us and we connected with educators around the nation. In fact, I met a teacher from Georgia and over the holiday break we shared lesson plans. If you haven’t yet taken advantage of HDTA’s offer to attend a conference, I highly recommend it!
Whenever I attend a conference I take notes…lots and lots of notes. I write these in my writer’s notebook or on my iPad. Sometimes I return with so many notes, I can’t always attribute them to the specific speaker or session. But these little nuggets of wisdom are preserved in my notebook. Which brings me to this one. I am not sure who said it, but it obviously spoke to me. It spoke to me so much that I wrote a note to myself about the note. Written on a bright green Post-it were the words: “He’s not giving me a hard time, he’s having a hard time.”
I love this perspective shift. Too often when a student gives us a hard time, we think it is personal. We demand students pay attention when they seem unengaged. We see it as directly undermining our authority. What, really, is behind the disruption or the lack of engagement? Maybe we are boring the kid with our lecture or our assignment. Yes, this can happen. Imagine sitting in classes for hours and not talking, just listening. I am sure some days are like that for our students. I know I had days like that when I was in high school…when the clock would tick so slowly I had to stifle my screams.
Maybe there is something more. Our students are flocking to the counselors with more and more issues. They are experiencing issues at home, debilitating anxiety, suicidal thoughts. Whatever the cause, this is currently the reality of our school, and schools across the nation. We can’t simply say, “suck it up” and give them the “when I was your age…” lecture. We have to face reality and have empathy for these students, recognizing that some are actually having a hard time. We don’t just teach math or English or science, we teach HUMAN BEINGS. And people are complex creatures. I don’t have to tell you the issues our students face. We have all had students who are dealing with a sick or dying parent. Students who have no parents and are living in homes or with other families. We have students who are transitioning, who don’t feel comfortable in their own skin. We have kids who are bullied at school or at home. Kids who work long hours after school. Students with a history of abuse. Students who know no English, are in a strange country and are far from their immediate families. Many of these students were not well educated in their home countries. We have students who had gaps in their learning and who checked out of the learning experience long ago. And we have students who are living in poverty and students who are on the streets.
So what do students do when they are facing issues that seem insurmountable? They may turn to an escape like drugs. They may escape through social media. They may turn inward and disengage or they may lash out at others. They all react in different ways and sometimes these creep their way into our classrooms, making our job as teachers more difficult. I don’t have any immediate solutions for turning these situations around. We have a transition team in place to help students entering the ninth grade. We can hold SSTs, talk to parents, social workers, students. But, really, my perspective of the situation is the only thing that I can control. So every single time a student acts out, remember the mantra on the bright green Post-it note. “He/She is not giving me a hard time, he/she is having a hard time.” Write it in a place where you will see it. And next time the student acts up or puts his head on his desk, take a deep breath. Remember that there may be more behind the student’s actions than you could ever imagine.