I started writing an entry about student absenteeism (attendance is around 30-40% right now) and the mix of emotions it produces in me ( . . . relief that I don't have to deal with the kids, shame at feeling such relief, irritation and boredom at having nothing to do, frustration that it will be very difficult to fairly assign grades for the final marking period, exoneration of my guilt at leaving early . . . and so on). I wrote “I feel terrible about wanting to go home so badly and caring so little about what happens to my students, but at the same time I can't help but feel incredibly cynical about my work here as a teacher.”
But then, I went to return my students' exam papers to the 7th and 8th grade classes, and two things happened that made me do a major flip-flop from "cynical" to "sentimental."
My afternoon 7th grade class is a source of constant trouble for me. There is a dichotomy in the class, more so than in any of my other classes; four or five students consistently score around 80-90% on my exams, and the other 45 kids rarely exceed 10-20%. When I returned their exam papers to the kids, most of them – being in the latter category – were dismayed and upset. Please, please come into our classroom and give us extra credit, they begged me . . . and I did, gratified by their interest and also ashamed at their – and by reflection, my – failure on the exam. Walking around the classroom, trying without success to explain math to kids who are completely and totally lost and confused, I realized (or rather remembered) that, despite how things may seem, the kids DO care and they DO feel badly when they fail. Although they are the immediate sources of a lot of my frustrations and so I am tempted to be short-tempered with their behavioral issues, they are the victims. They are the ones who have been failed by the dysfunction of the educational system, and my real frustration as a teacher is with that system, not with the students themselves.
So that was the first thing – a reminder to me that, cultural and classroom management issues aside, my negative feelings should be directed more at the failure of the system than at my students or myself.
The second thing that happened was that one of my 8th-grade students – one of the few who received a very high grade on this past exam – came up to me, elated, shook my hand, and asked if I was happy with her. She failed every other exam this year, but she had one of the highest scores this marking period and wanted me to congratulate her (which of course I did, pleased at her happiness – although I suspected that the high score was due to the probability that she managed to cheat without getting caught. But that's beside the point). And so I was reminded of another very important thing: that the students respond very well to positive reinforcement. That is why my neighbors' kids run up to me when they get their report cards, eager to show me their successes . . . because, although they will be beaten when they bring home a bad grade, there is rarely anyone to say “Great job!” when they get a good one. In my losing battles against cheating and disruptive behavior, I've forgotten how far a simple “Good work!” can go (corny as that sounds).