are very much on my mind this Saturday morning. I was supposed to be in Chicago for an educational conference this weekend, but because of an adolescent's personal crisis I could not go. I am not for reasons of privacy going to go into the details. I was in my classroom with little to do the past two days - I had left lesson plans that did not require my presence. That gave me time to observe and listen in a way I am not normally able to do. Earlier in the week we had begun the process of registration for next year, which connected me with the fears, anxieties, and aspirations of a number of students. I also thought of adolescents in our extended families, some I know through our religious communities, a few I have encountered around our neighborhood.
In the process I thought back to my own adolescence, which was perhaps the most unhappy time I have ever experienced.
I had a student "lose it" completely in class on Tuesday, a few minutes after the announcements had completed. As it happens, this student's parents had had a nasty divorce, and while in counseling, the student had not really shared with classmates, nor had any of the teachers been informed. When later in the day I caught up with student and with custodial parent (please note I am trying to keep as much confidentiality as I can while discussion the incident) the parent apologized for not having informed me when I called at the beginning of the school year as I do for all my students, in part because I want to know of any issues that might affect the child in my class.
That is what started the process of this reflection, which continues below the squiggle.
When the student "lost it" and ran out of the room sobbing, two students immediately went out as well, to offer comfort and support. That was important, and something I often see - the willingness of students to stand up for a classmate, to take personal risks to help and support. Neither asked permission, both reacted instinctively and supportively. The immediate needs of a classmate transcended any concern for their own personal well-being.
I also immediately went out, because a student in crisis outweighs anything else. An administrator was at the end of the hall, he quickly but calmly came down, and we were able to get the student to the health room. When I returned to the classroom, I explained to the other students (as I did in each of my five remaining classes) that if anyone was undergoing stressful situations it was important that adults know, even if we did not all have to know the details, so that we could make adjustments to help the student.
I have had two students hospitalized with stress this year. Both are taking an academically demanding course of students. Both have suffered some levels of panic attacks that they cannot do the work, although both are capable. In one case the parents decided to withdraw the student from Advanced Placement Government. The same decision might be forthcoming for the other as well.
I wonder if sometimes we ask too much of our gifted young people. As my students are preparing to register for next year, I know that some of my AP students will be taking five or even six AP courses next year (out of a normal total of 7 courses, and in few cases 8). I gently chide them, questioning if they want to have a life outside of classes. I point out that a full load at most colleges is only 4 classes, and that is for students several years older than they will be. We cannot refuse to let them sign up for such a demanding load, but I feel responsible to at least raise the question.
Advanced Placement was not so all-consuming when I was in high school, graduating in 1963. I was exceedingly unusual in taking on Calculus as a 15 year old 11th grader. I have students who now take Calculus A/B as sophomores, some as young as 13 at the start of the year. As a teacher I try to balance the demands of coverage for the AP exam with the opportunity to explore topics that interest them in more depth. That leads to my next observation.
Too many of our young people are obsessed with grades, with not making a mistake, and thus are unwilling to take risks. I have to work very hard to get them to take intellectual risks, so they can truly understand their strengths and weaknesses, and learn how to learn, rather than depending upon adults always to give them step by step instructions. It frustrates many of them.
Yet I walk into science fair and see the projects of students reluctant to push limits in my class who when they are impassioned about a subject can do wonderful explorations. Their projects represent a form of assessment of knowledge that is in my opinion far more meaningful than most of the tests we impose upon them. I wonder if it might not make more sense to create more such opportunities, perhaps by lessening the number of topics they study at any one time and allowing for greater exploration in depth? We have a few students who do National History Day, and sometimes I can see a similar result.
I think we are damaging our young people with the way we do schooling, with the demands we put upon them. I'm not sure it contributes constructively to better learning, even if test scores may improve (even without teaching to the test). We turn many students off to school, we provide little down time during the day, we control their time and their behavior far too much, and as a result we do not know them well enough. Even worse, they fully grasp that many of the adults with whom they interact do not really know them, and thus are less likely to let us know when they are having serious problems. Their counselors are often unable to help until after a crisis has already exploded, because they have too many students, are consumed with paperwork - scheduling, college applications, parent conferences.
The crisis that meant I had to cancel my attendance at the conference flows directly from a young person who was not confiding in any adult. There was behavior that perhaps should have served as a red flag, but no adult in that young person's life saw all the pieces until after a serious crisis. After the crisis had exploded, the speculation among the adults who knew that child about the possible causes turned out to be wildly off-target. This was a child who though deeply loved felt isolated and almost lost. No child should ever feel that way.
I am not that close to that particular child. Perhaps I should have been more so, perhaps not. In retrospect some of what I did know could have alerted me and other adults, had we stepped back and taken time to reflect on the entire picture, which none of us as individuals had, but collectively we probably did.
I teach 175 students in six classes. I have each class for 45 minutes a day, with up to 33 in at a time. I do call all my parents, I will touch base with other teachers or other adults if I notice a problem, but I am pressed for time - as are the other adults in the school - and thus may be failing some children because there is not enough time to do the kind of followup unless a situation is near or already at a crisis point.
Our schools are not only places of academic learning. They are places of social learning. They should be places of emotional support. Too often what we do in our schools makes them instead emotional stressers. That bothers me.
As I continue my reflections on whether I will continue in the classroom next year, I now have a new issue to consider: is what I am doing contributing to the emotional well-being of the student entrusted to my care? If I cannot take into account their needs as individual persons, I cannot be the teacher I should be, and regardless of test scores or other indicators of academic learning, I am not sure I should be continuing in that role.
On the other hand, because I am aware of this need, and because I have some flexibility in what I do as a teacher, perhaps I feel a responsibility to continue precisely to try to make that difference. Here I think of a teacher in our department who just turned down an opportunity to be the key person in a pilot program we will apparently be running next year. I had made clear it could not be me because I could not guarantee that i would be returning next year, nor was I willing to commit to remaining for 3 years. This teacher looked at what s/he would have to give up, which would have meant teaching fewer 9th graders not in honors classes, and felt a greater responsibility to help them make a successful transition to high school. I respect that.
And the decision s/he made challenges my own thinking for the future.
In the meantime, with about 1/3 of the school year left, I want to be sure that I provide myself enough time and space to think about my students beyond the mere academics, to be sure that as much as I can I serve as an adult who provides space and support for those students who need it.
Which might be far more than i realize right now.
An incident in a classroom.
A crisis with another young person with whom I am connected.
My thinking about my teaching, about what I do, gets challenged.
To me, that is a key part of what it means to be a teacher.
First and foremost I must remember, while I may be assigned as a teacher of social studies, what I teach is students, individual young persons, each absolutely unique.