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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 13 2013

Building relationships with seven weeks to go

The school year is beginning to wind down.  This week we began administering state standardized testing.  The feeling is like having prepared a team for the championships and its about to go in for the big game.  So far, I have been favorably impressed by the sense of determination and focus I’ve seen in the rooms where I’ve been either a proctor or monitor.

As I mentioned in earlier posts, my class is a semester-long remedial reading class.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve enjoyed the benefit of being able to use my lesson material a second time this year and re-tool it to improve it.  I had a chance to practice classroom management on a new group of kids without having to wait for another school year to begin.  It gives me the feeling like I have progressed somewhat.

One of the things I decided to do this semester was kind of counterintuitive.  Instead of teaching “bell-to-bell,” I decided to focus more on building relationships.  During the first semester, I felt like I was “cracking the whip” every day to teach with urgency during every available moment.  There was a considerable amount of resistance from the kids as a result.  This semester, I intentionally structure my lessons to give me five to ten minutes of free time on most days.

In doing this, I let my fatherly and grandfatherly instincts do their thing and many of the kids are responding much better to me.  There’s the old adage, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  On most days, I just spend time listening to what’s going on in their lives and expressing interest.  The kids are responding with increased trust and I’m learning some very revealing things.

One of my eighth graders’ mother went into the hospital with an infection.  She was supposed to be there for three days and now it has turned into six weeks.  The family doesn’t have medical insurance.  There’s a lot of stress and concern there, but the kid keeps coming to school and doing great work.

Another student’s dad was recently released from jail but, instead of being sent home, the dad was sent back to Mexico.  Now the kid says that he might be forced to move to Mexico and he’s scared about that.  Although he is the son of Mexican parents, he has lived his whole life here in the United States.  He speaks Spanish, but he fears that he won’t be accepted in Mexico if he goes back.  The whole situation has completely disconnected him from his future and the result is total disinvestment in school.  All of his teachers are giving up on him because his behavior makes classes he’s in totally unmanageable.

Two girls confided in me the other day the shared sentiment, “I hate my dad.”  I explained that all teenagers feel conflicted about their parents sometime because of expectations or discipline.  One of the girls responded, “My dad’s a ‘man whore.  That’s why I’m the way I am.”  The other girl added, “My dad’s a pot-head.”  Apparently the first girl’s dad left her and her mother and shacked up with a series of other women.  The other girl has no respect for her father because he just spends every available moment getting high.  Families are so important to kids.  It’s heartbreaking to see children who have been so disappointed by their parents’ bad choices.

Although it would seem that I’m losing instructional time by chatting with the kids about these things, it’s actually working out much differently than I imagined.  I’ve actually had students stay behind after the bell rings to finish up the last couple of sentences on an essay or summary instead of running for the door the instant the bell rang.   That never happened before.

The last couple of days, while testing was going on, I had to keep one of my seventh grade classes for almost four hours straight.  The testing schedule has their other teachers engaged and, instead of changing classes, they go to their first after-lunch class and stay there the rest of the afternoon.  Usually it’s pretty hard to get that group to do anything at all.  The past few days, most of them have been pretty compliant and on-task.  They worked with an internal locus of control.

Because they stay in class so long during the testing afternoons, I took them out for short breaks after reaching interim lesson objectives.  When we went out for one of them today, we had a foot race in the field next to the soccer field.  Then the boys wanted to have a push-up contest.  They were amazed that I won.  (I did twice as many as the best of them.)  Then they challenged me to a sit-up contest.  I won that one too, doubling the performance of their best person.  One of them said, “Dang, we thought you were old!”  I reminded them that, though I’m over 50, I’m a black belt in judo.  I’m in way better shape than most of them.  After our “workout” we came back into the class and did some “Round Robin summaries” and they worked with a great deal of focus and determination.

In a nutshell, building relationships with the students has led more of them to do more work.  Some of them who had previously just sat there and not even turned in any work at all are now participating at least part of the time.  As the school year winds down, I think this will be the only way I’ll continue to keep them engaged.

That’s important because the only thing that’s going to help them succeed is if they internalize the things I taught them and take responsibility for their own outcomes.  I’m hoping the final data the tests are collecting now will show that my hopes for these students are well-founded, not just blindly optimistic.


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YOTFAO BACTAG = You only teach for America once, but always challenge the achievement gap.

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