“He Was Kind” – My Students Describe What I’m Like as a Teacher

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What’s the most important attribute of a good teacher?

 

 

Some might say intelligence.

 

 

You want a teacher who knows the subject matter and can convey it clearly to students.

 

 

Others might say classroom management.

 

 

You want a teacher who keeps things organized and gets kids to behave.

 

 

But for me the most important thing a teacher can be is kind.

 

 

I’m not saying intelligence, classroom management and a host of other qualities are unimportant, but if you approach your students with good will in your heart, the rest seems to fall into place.

 

 

This isn’t a long-held pedagogical belief I could have articulated for you at the beginning of the school year.

 

 

It came to me – as did so much else – from my students.

 

 

At the end of the year as my 7th graders are finishing up their final projects and we’re tidying up the room, I always give them a little survey about their experience in the class.

 

 

“I’ve been grading you all year,” I say. “Now’s your turn to grade me.”

 

The surveys can be anonymous – kids needn’t put down their names, and whatever they write has no impact on their grades.

 

 

Yet the results are always enlightening.

 

 

I wrote in detail two years ago about the survey and the kinds of responses I often get.

 

 

But this year it was one of the simplest comments that really got me thinking.

 

 

“He was kind.”

 

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That’s what one of my students told me that I had done especially well during the year.

 

 

“He was kind.” That’s all.

 

 

It was a response that was echoed by many of my students.

 

 

Another child wrote:

 

 

“He was kind (and awesome). One of the best teachers.”

 

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And another:

 

 

“He can’t [improve]. He is the best he can be and is the teacher I wish I had every year.”

 

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This is all very flattering, but what exactly did all this niceness mean?

 

 

How did being a kind teacher help me do my job? What did I do that helped students learn?

 

 

They had an answer for that, too:

 

 

“He came and sat with me and helped me through everything I needed help with.”

 

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***

 

 

“If we needed help on anything he helped and explained everything well so work was easier.”

 

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“What my teacher did to help me succeed was that he made me feel motivated to do the work in class and not giving us so much work at once.”

 

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“[He] taught me how to write essays, indent on papers and showed me a lot of useful things.”

 

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Another particularly enlightening comment was this one:

 

 

“I don’t know [how he could improve], but in this class you grew with us. So uh yeah.”

 

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And I do try to change and grow with my students. When your mandate is to individualize instruction to fit each particular child, I don’t know how you can do otherwise.

 

 

This means opening yourself up and letting students know who you are and what you stand for.

 

 

I try not to inflict my political, religious or philosophical beliefs on my classes. However, I think some core values come through.

 

 

For instance, my students knew I was going to Connecticut to give a TED Talk on the current state of public schools.

 

 

They knew my thoughts on standardized testing and school privatization – perhaps not in detail but the general shape of them, certainly. They knew my firm conviction against racism, sexism and prejudice of any kind.

 

 

Perhaps that’s why one of them wrote this:

 

 

“You’re not only a good teacher. You’re a good friend, and man.”

 

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***

 

 

“P.S. – Nice jokes and commentary.”

 

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Of course there were dissenting opinions. One child thought I was too nice:

 

 

“He is way too nice for me and you give way too much essays for people to handle. But overall grade 94%. He doesn’t like Tom Brady so yeah. And he likes the Steelers.”

 

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I guess no one’s perfect. But how interesting she thought either she deserved a stronger hand or would have been more motivated by fear and consequences. Yet I have to take her with a few grains of salt because this student identified herself on her response and had a friendly rivalry with me about football. She said I was too nice but then referenced our interpersonal rapport.

 

Another student highlighted how I wasn’t excessively permissive:

 

[He was good at] “Helping me with instructions and keeping me on task.”

 

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Most comments were unbridled approbation:

 

 

What did your teacher do especially well this year to help you succeed? – “Uh, everything.”

 

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In what areas can your teacher improve his/her instruction? – “I’m not sure. That’s how good a teacher he was.”

 

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“I think you did awesome, Mr. Singer. Thanks for being my reading teacher!”

 

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“I don’t think my teacher needs to improve. He’s already a great teacher.”

 

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And so another school year comes to an end.

 

 

I’ll miss this class. It was the first year I taught exclusively 7th grade. I’d taught one or two sections of that grade before, but never only that grade.

 

 

I’m more used to 8th grade. You wouldn’t think there’d be a world of difference between the two. And who knows? Perhaps if I teach the same grade level next year things will be even more unexpected because the kids will be different.

 

 

But when that final bell chimed, I was surprised that so many kids came up to me with hugs and tears.

 

 

They really didn’t want to see me go, and, frankly, I don’t want to see them go, either.

 

 

If I could follow them next year, I would.

 

 

I gave them everything I had to give.

 

 

I gave them my heart. I shared with them my life.

 

 

And I got back so much more.

 

 

That’s what non-teachers don’t understand.

 

 

Education is created through often reciprocal relationships.

 

 

Learner and teacher are tied together in a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which and sometimes there is no difference at all.

 

 

Thank you so much, last year’s students.

 

 

Thank you for letting me be your teacher.

 

 

Thank you for bringing out the best in me as I tried to do the same for you.

 


 

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book-2

I May Have Just Been Murdered By House Republicans

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I may be dead already.

 

And House Republicans may be the ones who killed me.

 

With the passage of a healthcare bill they, themselves, haven’t read – haven’t studied – haven’t thoughtfully considered in any way – it seems they’ve opened the door for insurance companies to deny people coverage due to pre-existing conditions.

 

I have one.

 

I’ve had two small heart attacks this year.

 

So I sit here stunned at the news on my computer feeling very much at a loss.

 

People have legitimate political differences, but this… it’s just beyond anything I’ve ever experienced personally.

 

There are people who count on me – my daughter, my wife, my students. I’m not so vain as to imagine that they can’t get along without me, but my loss will hurt them. I think at the very least they’ll miss me.

 

I’m 43-years-old. I’ve lived a good life. I just never expected to be abandoned in such a way by a society I’d always thought was more humane.

 

But if this legislation becomes the law of the land, what will I do?

 

I take six or seven pills a day to control my cholesterol, keep the stints in my heart clean, control my blood pressure, slow my heartbeat, etc. Without them, I almost certainly will have another heart attack. Yet I have no idea how I could possibly afford to take them without insurance.

 

And if I get sick, I won’t be able to work. I’ll bring in even less money. I won’t be able to help support my family. I’ll end up being a liability, a burden.

 

House Republicans have to know there are people out there like me. There have to be a lot of people in even worse shape than I am.

 

Are they really going to just let all of us die?

 

I had hoped to see my daughter grow up. She’s only 8-years-old, the most precious person in my life. No one is more full of energy, more vivacious and joyful. She loves to draw and write short stories. She pretends to be a teacher just like her father and gives her stuffed animals assignments.

 

I guess I’ll never get to see the person she becomes. I’ll never find out if she goes to college, if she finds love, if she has children of her own.

 

Can it really all come down to this?

 

My wife and I have been through a lot together. We met back in high school. Before I became a public school teacher, we worked together at various local newspapers. She supports me when I can’t go on. I hope I am able to give her back even a fraction of the strength she lends me.

 

Does this mean we’ll have to say goodbye, and so much sooner than I ever imagined?

 

My middle school students and I just finished reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” When we closed the book, there were some tears shed. I passed around the tissues, and we discussed how we felt. Many of them expressed anger that some people could hold others’ lives so cheaply as the Nazis did Anne and her family. Are House Republicans guilty of a similar crime? They aren’t rounding anyone up to send to death camps, but they’re apparently content to let many of us just die.

 

The pundits tell me I have nothing to worry about. The bill won’t pass the Senate, they say. And even if it does, the President would be breaking every campaign promise he ever made, if he signs it.

 

So what else is new?

 

This is the world we live in now.

 

It’s not the country I was born into. It’s a cold place. A heartless reality.

 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll gather the strength to resist, to call my Congressperson again, to protest, to organize.

 

But as for today…

 

I can’t even.

 

So I’ll head home, and give my family a big hug, spend whatever time I can with them.

 

Because if my life now depends on the compassion of Republican lawmakers, I may not have much of it left.

 

 

 

 

 

Taking Back Your Name – The Pros and Cons of Political Correctness

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“What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”
Toni Morrison

“Never trust anyone who says they do not see color. This means to them, you are invisible.”
Nayhyirah Waheed

 

Call me Steve.

Not Steven. Not Stephen. Certainly not Steveareno.

It’s a preference. My preference. My choice. And if people want to be in my good graces, they’ll comply with my wishes.

There’s nothing strange or unreasonable about this. We do it all the time – usually when we’re being introduced to someone.

“Hi. I’m Steve.”

“Nice to meet you, Steve. I’m Elisha.”

“Elisha? What a beautiful name!”

“Thank you, Steven.”

“Please. Call me Steve.”

Is there anything wrong with that? Does that stifle conversation? Does it stop people from talking freely to each other?

No. Certainly some names are hard to pronounce or – in my case – remember. But overcoming those hurdles is just common decency. It’s not too much to ask – especially if you’re going to be dealing with this person for an extended length of time.

The idea that allowing people to define themselves somehow shuts down conversation is rather strange. But it’s the essence of opposition to political correctness.

“Political correctness is tyranny with manners,” said conservative icon Charlton Heston.

I wonder if he would have felt the same if we’d called him Charlie Hessywessytone.

A more fleshed out criticism comes from President George H. W. Bush who said, “The notion of political correctness declares certain topics, certain expressions, even certain gestures off-limits. What began as a crusade for civility has soured into a cause of conflict and even censorship.”

Is that true? Is political correctness really censorship? That’s the conflation made by many conservatives and even some liberals. After all, popular Left-wing comedian Bill Maher sarcastically calls his HBO show “Politically Incorrect,” and he often rails against the practice.

There’s a kernel of truth to it. We are asked to change the way we speak. We’re asked to self-censor, but we already do this frequently without wailing against a loss of free speech.

Human beings are subject to various impulses, but as adults, we learn which ones we can act on and which we shouldn’t. I may think it would be hilarious to run into a crowded movie theater and yell, “FIRE!” However, I know that doing so – while possibly funny to a certain kind of person – would result in injuries and trauma as moviegoers stampede out of the theater. So I don’t do it. Is that censorship? Maybe. But it’s censorship with a small c.

The Hestons, Bushes and Mahers of the world seem to think political correctness is more like Capital C Censorship. But this is demonstrably false.

That kind of Censorship is the act of officials, possibly agents of the government, a corporation or some other formal bureaucracy. But political correctness has nothing to do with officials. There are no censors. There are only people who ask to be named a certain way.

A censor looks at a news report of military operations in Iraq and deletes material that would give away the army’s location. Political correctness is nothing like that. It involves someone asking others to refer to themselves THIS WAY and not THAT WAY.

The penalties for violating Censorship are official. Ask Chelsea Manning who is serving a 35-year prison sentence for doing just that. The penalties for violating political correctness are social. You may be criticized, condemned or disliked.

If you criticize Manning for releasing classified documents to Wikileaks, you’re not violating political correctness. That’s your opinion, and you’re entitled to it. However, Manning is a trans woman who is going through hormone replacement therapy. If you refer to her as “him” you are violating political correctness. You’re naming her in a way that violates her wishes. The penalty is not a prison sentence. It’s a sour look.

So political correctness is not Censorship. In some ways, the confusion comes from the term “political correctness,” itself.

Though its origins are hard to pin down, it appears to have been coined by the Soviets to mean judging “the degree of compatibility of one’s ideas or political analysis with the official party line in Moscow.” At least that’s what the International Encyclopedia of Social Studies says.

The term came to prominence in the United States in conservative writer Dinesh D’Souza’s book “Illiberal Education.” He disparaged affirmative action as a kind of political correctness that gave preference to (what he saw as) unqualified minority students over whites in college admissions.

So the first mention of the term in the USA was simply to disparage liberal political policies. It was a ham-handed way of comparing the Left with the Soviets. Yet somehow this term has become the handle by which we know simple civility. It’s kind of hard to feel positively about a concept that begins with a mountain of unearned negative connotations.

Conservatives know the power of getting to name something. It’s their go-to propaganda tactic and lets them control much of the debate. For instance, that’s why the Right loves to call Social Security an “entitlement.” There’s truth to it because you’re entitled to getting back the money you pay in, but it’s full of unearned negative connotations as if these people were somehow demanding things they don’t deserve.

In essence, political correctness shouldn’t be political at all. It’s just kindness. It’s just being a decent human being. Don’t purposefully call someone by a name they wouldn’t appreciate. Respect a person’s ownership of their own identity.

And for some people that’s hard to do. Their conceptions of things like gender, sexuality, race and religion are extremely rigid. The only way to be a man is THIS WAY. The only way to be spiritual is THAT WAY. But if they give voice to these ideas in the public square – especially in the presence of people who think differently – they will be frowned upon.

But is this really so dissimilar to the crowded movie theater? Refusing to acknowledge someone else’s identity is harmful to that person. It tramples the soul similarly to the way their body would be trampled in a stampeded exit. So you shouldn’t do it.

The result is an apparently much more tolerant society. It’s no longer okay to use racial, cultural, gender and sexual stereotypes in public. You’re forced to give other people consideration – or else face the consequences of being disliked. And on the surface, that’s a much more inviting world to live in.

However, there is a glaring problem. In some ways, this has made public discourse more antiseptic. People don’t always say what they mean in the public square. It’s not that they’ve changed the way they think about the world. They’ve just learned to keep it to themselves until they’re around like-minded individuals. They reserve their racist, classist, sexist language for use behind closed doors.

This is why when I’m at a party peopled exclusively by white folks, some partygoers may let racial epithets slip out. And we all laugh nervously to be polite. Or maybe it’s more than politeness. Maybe for some it’s to relieve the tension of such refreshing candor like taking off a girdle. Fwew! Here, at least, I can say what I really think without having to worry about people looking down on me for it!

Since such reactions occur mostly in homogeneous groups, it makes the world look much more enlightened than it really is. Pundits and policymakers look around and cheer the end of these social ills when they haven’t ended at all. They’ve merely gone underground.

And so we have an epidemic of colorblind white people who can’t see racism because of the gains of political correctness. Somehow they forget those unguarded moments. Somehow they haven’t the courage to examine their own souls. Or perhaps they don’t care.

And so we have the conundrum: which is better – to live in a world where all individuals have the right to name themselves or to live in a world where our most basic prejudices are on display for all to see?

Personally, I pick political correctness, and here’s why.

Words are important. We think in words. We use them to put together our thoughts. If we continue to respect individuals’ names in word, eventually we’ll begin to do so in thought and deed.

This isn’t mind control. It’s habit. It’s recognizing an ideal and working toward it. As Aristotle taught, the way to become a good person is to act like one. Eventually, your preferences will catch up with your habits.

I think that’s what’s happening today. Look at the children. They’re so much less prejudiced and racist than we, adults. This is because they’ve learned political correctness first. They didn’t have to unlearn some archaic white-cisgender-centrism. This is normal to them, and I think that’s a good thing.

Obviously some people will balk at this idea. They will look at this ideal as reprehensible. They want to return to a world where women were little more than property, a world where black people knew their place, where sexual identity was as simple as A or B.

But I think most of us recognize that this is not a world where we’d want to live. Modern society can be scary and confusing but trying to respect everyone as a person isn’t a bad thing. It’s consideration, concern, warmth.

Perhaps the best way to love your fellow humans is to call them by their proper names.