How can I adequately express to you, the reader, the love I have for my job. It’s not the job I love; it’s the students. The love and appreciation I have for them is greater than the love I have for the discipline I teach: history. I want to keep their identity confidential, but I want to share with you the difficulties they face each day. I realize those of you who are educators may deal with students like my students. But perhaps not to the same extent as I see it everyday.
The vast majority of our students are provided free/reduced lunches and are Title 1 students as well. Additionally, probably 95% of them are involved in the juvenile justice system in some fashion. Many do not live with either biological parent, but with a relative or in a foster home. A number of them have been abused in some way that boggles the mind and would make you shudder. It doesn’t give me nightmares, but there are some cases that I simply can’t get out of my head and I hate that I know these kids have to suffer through that.
It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
~ Luke 17:2 (NIV)
It is my pleasure, privilege, and sadly, my sorrow to greet each of our students at the school’s front door in the morning. I see them when they get out of the car, taxi, bus, or walk up. I see the angry looks between parent or guardian and the student, the poor “breakfasts,” the unwashed clothes and/or bodies, the thrice-worn socks, the tears (sometimes), the shut-down expressions, the vacant stares. I smell the drugs, cigarettes, cat spray (meth?), alcohol, body odor. I hear the yelling, the slamming doors, the angry voices. I do not want to paint a picture that is all horrible. Many of our students come in like students anywhere I imagine: quiet, unsmiling, tired, etc. Some even come in smiling.
Officially, my job is to greet them and ensure new students know how to go through the security procedures and to make sure there is no talking once they enter the building. I see it as my job to do two things: a) make them smile and get them to say “good morning” at a minimum; and b) assess their mood and let other teachers know. I consider it my pleasure and privilege to greet them because I’m constantly amazed that these students come to school against such overwhelming odds. I respect them and their perseverance, endurance, and tenacity. They don’t recognize it as that. They see their attendance as simply a mandatory function
As I mentioned, many of our students are involved in the juvenile justice system. Students called out of class to see parole officers, probation officers, DCS social workers, etc is not uncommon. Students with ankle monitors is equally not uncommon. We’ve had students arrested at school and students arrested elsewhere for strings of robberies, burglaries, and assault. Former students are more often seen in the county mugshots than the social page. Former students have been arrested for bank robbery and even for murder. Kids being arrested for disorderly conduct is not uncommon either. My first year a student was expelled for making verbal threats against me. These are the students I deal with on a daily basis.
I have good days and I have bad days, as we all do. My heart breaks for them on many days. They annoy me, they frustrate me, they irritate me, they anger me, they disappoint me, they sadden me. And at the same time, they reach into the depths of my soul and bring out the best in me – respect, humor, understanding, compassion, love, kindness, maintaining standards and boundaries.
This year though, I’ve been particularly negative. I was (and am still not) prepared for this year. On Friday, August 15th, I came down particularly hard on a class for normal teenage stubbornness about an assignment. Indeed, after calling one young lady up to my desk and talking to her, her eyes started to tear up. She looked broken the rest of the day. I’ve seen this girl angry and this was not angry. It ripped at me. Over the weekend I thought about it. On Sunday, I thought I’d go in with a new attitude and try out Angela Maiers “You Matter” concept.
On Monday, August 18th, while I was at the front door I ensured I smiled and greeted each student as I do on everyday. But I put an extra effort in it. I asked how their weekend was, how their morning was, if they slept well, if they thought they’d have a good day, etc. But the real deal came when 1st period started. I have two students in my first period who wear ankle monitors. One of them came into class shut down. You could tell it. He moved abruptly to his desk, kept looking down, didn’t say anything and you could see the anger seething under his expression. Just to get him to sign the lunch slip was almost an ordeal. The other one came in tardy with his shirt untucked (against policy). Being tardy means you serve a 15 minute after-school “detention” and you might be dropped a level which increases your days at the program. So I knew both of them would be in less than a good mood. Another student was the female who had tears in her eyes at my desk the previous Friday and the other one is simply a kid who can have some attitude if he just doesn’t feel like doing anything. So then I started.
I told them (and each class) before we started that I wanted them to know they mattered. I said something like, “You matter. You may not hear that from anyone else today and may not hear it from your parents or at home, but I want you to know that you matter to me. You may have had a bad weekend or a bad morning and not have heard it or felt it. If you have a bad rest of the day and don’t hear it again, just remember you matter to me. I know you may not like being here and I understand that, but I’m glad you’re here because I get to know you a bit better and by doing that, maybe teach you a bit better. You are important, you have intrinsic, internal value that is not dependent on who you are, what you have done, or said. No matter what I value you. You are unique. There are a million stars out there and in all that vastness, there is only one you. You are a genius in one way or another. You may not know what that is yet, but that’s okay. You’ll discover it. You have something to share with the world and I’m happy about that. I’m glad I get to come here and be with you guys. It brings a smile on my face. I know you may think I’m on drugs, and this is weird, but I want you to know that you matter.”
You would have thought they had all won money in the lottery. The change was near instantaneous. The entire class was smiling and looking brighter and better. I was upbeat, my attitude was improved and felt like I was on cloud nine. I had been concerned that doing something like this would backfire, but it didn’t. I asked them at the end of the class (40 minutes. Did you read that? FORTY minutes) how their day was going so far. Almost everyone one of them said that it had started out real bad but it was going good now. And I hate to think I had anything to do with that, but they knew they mattered. The young lady who had tears in her eyes on Friday was smiling and bright on Monday. Throughout the day every class reacted in similar fashion almost. At the end of the day, I could swear one girl wiped her eyes (and I’m trying to not exaggerate). Some students told me they had never been told that. Some of my students heard it twice and they didn’t tire of it.
I still enforced standards, I still kept boundaries. They reacted well. I can honestly say I had not one major behavior problem aside from usual teenage banter and such (and where does that not happen?!). If you’ve not thought about telling your students “you matter,” you might want to.
I love my job and today was the perfect example of why. They need people who care, who can empathize with them, who can show compassion and kindness to them. Who can respect them, and who can make them toe the line as well. When I think of them, I think of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians and he writes, “…I have become all things to all people…” (1 Cor 9:19-23). Today renewed my commitment and enthusiasm for my students and renewed my belief that I have been called to be at this school for at least this time. Such a wonderful day.
But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
~ Luke 18:16 (KJV)