How Do You Teach When

Today was my sixth day of sitting in on classes. Already I’m starting to lose track of the number of students’ personal stories I’ve heard that make me realize many students must be only showing their surface-level selves. And I don’t say that to imply they’re superficial. I think for many, it’s a coping mechanism.

I never expected that students would come into the classroom completely detached from their home lives. We are all, after all, a sum of our experiences. So naturally pieces from one part of a student’s life will affect her academic life. I just didn’t expect these stories to come out with little to no prompting.

I’ve heard stories of a parent in prison, of a loved one killed by ISIS, of drugs used by a student for whom drugs are a staple in the home. I’ve seen self-harming marks on a student’s arm, bright and angry. And these stories don’t stem from any getting-to-know-you class activity or assignment; students share them willingly. I think they just need to tell someone.

My first thought after hearing one story was, “How do you teach a student about Macbeth when they’re going through that at home?”

But I think for most of these students (I say “I think” because I don’t pretend to understand I know what it’s like), they need to learn Shakespeare and algebra and Spanish as a way to forget the rest. If you have something small and manageable to focus on, something you can control, you’re less likely to get swallowed up in the grief or pain or whatever other huge thing might otherwise consume you. I think the best way you can support students struggling with personal issues is, first, to steer them toward counseling and whatever other resources that could benefit them. And then maintain the classroom routine that students likely crave and possibly don’t get at home.

I feel a bit like an imposter saying all this, because I am not an educator yet and my own high-school years were pretty sheltered and unobstructed. These are just my own thoughts on this issue based on what I’ve seen. And I’d love to hear other people’s (especially educators’) thoughts on this.

I think many adults look at teenagers and assume they’re naïve — “They think life is hard now? Wait till they have a mortgage and need to pay off student loans.” And I’m guilty of having similar thoughts. We figure their biggest worries are trivial: who’s going to be in their prom group, who’s dating a friend’s ex, that big upcoming exam. I imagine for some students, those really are their primary concerns — which separates those dealing with bigger problems from both their peers and the adults in their lives who lump them into the former category. How isolating that must feel.

My main point of contention with my K-12 experience was feeling like I had no voice. And despite all the differences in the classroom today from when I was a student, I don’t think this aspect has changed. My dad has often said, usually regarding his classroom, that kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Students don’t care if you’re just some random lady sitting in the corner of their classroom. They’re not looking for you to fix their problems or for your sympathy. They just want someone to listen.

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About Andrea Nicole

NZ enthusiast in the PNW. Internationally published writer, educator, grammar nerd, genealogist, and all-around storyteller. Recovering homebody. @Whitworth and @WGU alumna. #edchat
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