Teaching and Parenting

This has been a long week at school, our first full week back after the false start February break (NYC schools were open Wed-Fri, to make up for time lost due to Sandy). Even though it’s only Thursday, the past few days really dragged, so by the time we dismissed today, everybody was ready for some rest.

But, since February will have ended by the time most people read this, we had to fit in our monthly PTA meeting. I was dreading it, but I made the decision that it was too important to miss. This was our first meeting since President Obama mentioned us by name, saying “We need to give every American student opportunities like this.” While we had a slightly higher turnout, by the time I walked out of school, I wasn’t thinking about anything but the relationships inside the school.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the mother of one of my students–alternately my favorite and most frustrating. He’s a sophomore, on the slow and steady improvement track after an absolutely disastrous 9th grade year–discipline problems, poor work habits, generally very immature. As a result, I’ve spoken to both of his parents on multiple occasions.

At the end of the meeting, she comes over to check in with me, and we chat about her son. He’s been doing fine in my class, and I mentioned some work he was missing. Then we moved to behavior, and we went back and forth on a few topics. I explained one incident, pulling out the common theme of a few times recently when he had lost his temper a bit. 

Here’s what she said, and it made my whole week: 

“Well Mr. E, you certainly know my son! I hope you have a blessed evening.”

If I’m ever asked for a secret to good teaching, good schools, anything to do with youth development, here it comes. The first several times this kid spoke to me, he had been kicked out of class for some kind of misbehavior. I’ll be honest, I had no idea how to deal with any of these situations, having received almost no training. So while I’d like to take credit for being persuaded of this approach’s power before trying it, half of any success I take credit for is luck. In any case, here’s what I did…here’s the secret:

I listened. I asked him to talk, and I listened carefully to each word he said. Now, this young man hangs on my every word, and he’s getting better, slowly but surely. He’s connected to school in a way that makes me confident that he’ll continue to mature and eventually graduate. Ultimately, education is about relationships. Students learn when they know their teacher cares about them, and as a teacher, my job is easiest with students I know on a personal level. 

The best way to wrap up a grueling day is to be reminded that your efforts are worthwhile. Hearing a mother’s joy that, yes, her son is known at school…that’s why I go in early, stay late, put in extra time. Because it matters. This kid, from a tough neighborhood, deserves a chance as much as or more than most anybody I know. He deserves to be known at school, and we’re successful to the extent that students like him put their trust into an institution that has screwed them over time and again. One by one, this is what teaching is about…slowly but surely.