Saturday, November 15, 2014

There are no Answers in Teaching

I'm currently teaching two English classes and what I've learned so far about myself and my students has little to do with commas or sentence fragments.  In many ways, I am driven to teach more than writing skills, I am interested in showing my students a sliver of topics or ideas that they may not have been exposed to yet.

Last Friday I gave my students 5 minutes to respond to a writing prompt.  I asked my students what they were afraid of and their answers varied greatly.  When they turned their papers in I couldn't help but read them right away.  At the start of the semester I was frustrated by their lack of motivation, their refusal to speak in class and their blank faces.  But, after  getting to know them a bit, I realize that their silence isn't always due to lack of preparation.  Sometimes my students are silent because they have much scarier and stressful things going on in their lives besides my English class.

I have one student who is extremely quiet.  He is on the basketball team and wrote a creative essay about why the basketball court is his home, the one place where he feels safe and confident.  Through talking to him and reading his papers I've learned that he was witness to his uncle/mentor being arrested and put in jail.  After his uncle was sentenced he was forced to move to another state to live with his mother and aunt.  He has talked about how he is homesick and has learned that you cannot rely on the people you love always being there.  What I want to tell him is that you can rely on the people you love to be there, but I know he has every reason to believe I am wrong. 

Another student wrote that she is afraid of being deported back to Mexico if she doesn't get the proper paperwork to stay in school.  She lost her mother to cancer a few years ago and stays with her aunt and uncle in California when she is on break from school.  She wrote about her fears of not graduating from college.  I've also learned that my student stays up at night, unable to sleep, because of her intense anxiety and worry.  How can I expect her to have perfect attendance and proper essays when she is dealing with so much?

Then, I have a student who shows up sporadically to class, always looking defeated and exhausted.  Through our writing prompts I've learned that she cannot afford college on her own and is in need of a co-signer for a loan.  Without a co-signer she would be forced to drop out of college.  I learned last week that she was unable to find someone and will not be returning to school.  College was her way out of a bad home life, it was her refuge.  Now, she has to return to that home and somehow find her way again.  I don't know what will happen to her.

There have been so many days when I wanted to scream in front of the classroom.  I wanted to yell and reprimand the students for not doing their work, for looking absent mindedly at the board and for not being excited about writing and self-expression.  And while I am not excusing their lack of participation I can see why some may have bigger concerns on their minds besides homework.

I don't know how to help my students who need the most help, the students who need to learn how to survive in a world that seems to be wholly unfair and cruel.  I don't know how to tell them that things will work out, that they have a bright future, without sounding na├»ve.  There are so many "I don't knows" in teaching and there are so many days when I feel unprepared to face my small crowd of bright, hurt and creative students.  I just don't know.

So, yes, my job as a teacher is to show my students how to write and communicate well.  But, perhaps more importantly, my job is to listen and not judge.