“I had chosen to use my work as a reflection of my values.”
- Sidney Poitier
It’s not every day an old lady at the dog park calls me an asshole, but today I was treated to this very appraisal. Allow me to explain. During off-leash hours the park is packed with frenzied, slobbering beasts, plus their dogs, and all these stimuli can bring out the worst in easily excitable canines. Enter my Parson Russell terrier, Clarence. If Clarence were a student, his IEP would read, “Diagnosis: ADHD and Emotional Disturbance.” To say he’s high strung is like saying Joan Rivers cares just a bit about looking young.
Don’t let the cuteness fool you. There’s a storm brewing inside him.
So we’re at the park, and a ten-dog fight breaks out over a tennis ball, which is of course in Clarence’s mouth. Wanting to end the brawl, I reach in and yank my dog out of the fracas by his scruff, and he yelps. I guess this looks like abuse to the eloquent stranger who shouts, “Put him down, ya asshole!” I can’t help but notice that her dog is a calm, uninvolved Labrador. How convenient.
This morning’s episode illustrates a feature of education (and of dog training) that is essential to critical reflection—because every teaching decision is inherently contextual, methods ought to be judged contextually, not absolutely. Shifting my judgments from black-and-white to grayscale has overhauled my pedagogical perspective and allowed for a more nuanced understanding of what “good” teaching looks like. Over the past year, my opinions and my approach have changed most significantly around the following issues.
Fairness is fluid
One reason I like sports so much is that they are built on a foundation of fairness. Unlike in life, in sports the rules are clear and apply to everybody. I have a special affinity for fair play and a special hatred of cheating. When I began teaching, I was obsessed with fairness and was easily upset by anything resembling preferential treatment. Problem is, social interactions in school are not clear cut—there’s no universal rulebook, and not everyone participates voluntarily. Students do not all share the same needs and goals, and teachers honestly don’t hold the same expectations for all.
In fact, the whole enterprise of special education is unfair in the strict sense of the word. It’s a libertarian’s nightmare, really: extra time on tests, modified behavioral expectations, and grossly disproportionate allocation of funds (on related service providers such as speech therapists and counselors, e.g.). But any parent of two or more will tell you it’s impossible and unreasonable to treat every child the same. Individualized treatment does not equate to favoritism, it’s simply responsive and appropriate. And perhaps more to the point, individuals themselves have varying moods and personas, which require observant, calibrated handling. Any one student will have vastly different needs at different times. Fairness does not mean one standard for all, it means providing exactly what each child needs to grow.
I am not immune to the first-year curve
My immediate supervisor is a great listener. She patiently sat through my dozen or so rants on topics ranging from the laziness of our students to the bass-ackwards priorities of the NYC Department of Ed. With the tranquility of a Buddhist monk she endured my tirades, assuring me that they were all part of the first-year process. She even offered me a graphic representation of my frustration:
Like an adolescent I protested that my disillusionment was genuine and therefore couldn’t possibly be explained via some hackneyed, you’re-not-alone brand of pseudo-psychology. Well, I was wrong. Now that it’s late June and I have a little mental breathing room, it is clear that those textbook phases were spot on.
Still, the graph could be a little more specific. I’ve reworded it to more honestly reflect my year:
||Reading useless books on pedagogy
||Endless lesson planning
||Too much whiskey
||Professional development seminars
||Slightly less whiskey
||X-ing days off calendar
Some kids are hopeless
I know, I know. That sounds like something a cynical burnout would say. I assure you I’m not being cynical, nor have I burned out. (You saw my graph, right?) What I mean is that some children are so obstinate in certain areas that the only feasible tactic is to give up on one aspect of instruction and focus on the others. I’m referring specifically to behavior modification, or the instruction of maturity.
When I began teaching, mutual respect, politeness and effort were the only things I truly cared about. To be sure, they still top my list of priorities, and most of my students understand my values and act accordingly. There have been a tenacious few, though—mostly kids with emotional disturbance—who are so pridefully averse to changing their behavior that if I get stuck on their rudeness we’ll never get anywhere. In these rare cases I have had to ignore the fact that I despise the makeup of their character (yes, I feel this strongly about two of my kids) and focus entirely on giving them the content-area instruction that they need to pass their state exams.
This feels like defeat. And in a way, it is. But some people are beyond changing for unpredictable stretches of time. The period could be a year, a decade, a lifetime. Adolescence is generally a period of experimenting with various appealing personas, then deciding which one we prefer, but not all adolescents are interested in this process of self-actualizing. Erik Erikson, the famous developmental psychologist who coined the phrase identity crisis, warns that some emotionally hardened teens do zero experimentation and self-reflection, opting instead for a state of “foreclosure. . . [which is] a commitment to a particular life course without adequately exploring alternatives,” (Nakkula, 2006, p. 15). It’s a waste of time trying to pry open a door that has been sealed shut.
My thinking is that for those students who are totally closed off to self-improvement, I can still add value to their lives by at least helping them get their diploma, so if years later some personal crisis re-opens the door to introspection, they will at least have options that they would not have as high school dropouts. This may be a huge concession, but I’m making lemonade. As Harvard professor of psychology Michael Nakkula explains, “[A]dolescence provides the best last chance to rework some of the prior crises, and thus reset the course for positive subsequent development,” (ibid). While the teenage years may be the ‘best last chance’ for significant change, there’s no telling for certain how any individual’s life will pan out. In some cases, the most I can do is help a kid prepare for the off chance of delayed-onset maturity. For these anomalous students I am not hopeful in the real sense, the sense of expecting things to get better. I don’t give up on them, but I do cut my losses.
And on that happy note, my self-reflection brings me back to the scene at the park this morning. I began this academic year with the glib presumptuousness of the lady who called me an asshole. The news attacked underperforming teachers, so of course those lousy teachers were to blame. I believed myself to be informed, and I was ready to issue pithy opinions. If only every reporter could teach for a year in a failing school system. If only every dog lover could own a maniacal terrier. Doing what’s best for others isn’t always easy, or pretty—as only those who’ve done the job can attest.
Nakkula, M. and Toshalis, E. (2006). Understanding Youth: Adolescent Development for Educators. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.