The Students Who Choose Us

We knew when it happened—when students chose us. They started using our words and copying our gestures. They came to us with questions about the new immigration laws, which parent to choose in a custody battle, their being a vegan, and whether an Airedale terrier or a Bichon Frise would be the better pet for them. They dropped by to see us after school and sent us e-mails during summer vacation. They invited us to their graduation parties, then stopped by on college breaks, and later brought their children to see us. These were our students.

Ben was one of mine. One morning he rushed into my room and slammed the door shut. He stood against it panting.

“I’m safe,” he said. This is my safe place.”

Ben had chosen me.

Five seventh-grade students came to me one day with a sealed envelope.

“For your husband,” they said.

I took it home. He broke the seal and showed me.

“When Mrs. Swartz dies,” the note said. “Will you tell us so we can come to her funeral?”

Those five students were mine, too.

Around the lunch table in the teachers’ lounge, we knew which students belonged to which teachers.

“Talk to Josie,” I said once to the algebra teacher. “Something’s wrong. She’s losing her focus.”

Why did Josie choose the algebra teacher instead of me? Why do students become devotees of particular teachers?

Maybe because the teacher provides a missing element or seems familiar or syncs with gifts or interests. Maybe because of a match of personality or intellect. Maybe because the teacher is in the right place and the right time.

Whatever the reason, this choosing is an honor, one of the delights of teaching, and a sobering responsibility.

How to Love a Class You Hate

Every class, I learned in my 30 years of teaching, has a personality. And, like many teachers, I learned to flex with these group temperaments. According to need, I could turn energy up or down. I could slow my pace one period and snap to the next. I could teach with charm or with might, humor or concern. I could adjust my style to match each class. And mostly this worked.

But I’ve also clashed with classes. I wanted to like them, but I fought what felt like a fundamental incompatibility. My instinct was to distance myself, to go through the motions and not invest emotionally. But this was a luxury, I couldn’t afford. Because when I withdrew, students didn’t learn.

Over the decades, I found a few ways to change my relationship with classes I didn’t like, to look forward to them, instead of dreading them. Here’s what worked:

  • I quit trying to change my feelings. This gave me energy to change my actions. I acted as if I liked the classes. And gradually I did.
  • I watched my self-talk. The more I complained to myself about a class, the more I found that annoyed me. And the more I affirmed, the more I found to like.
  • I asked my students questions. The more I discovered about their sufferings and hopes and dilemmas, the more empathy I felt for them.
  • I invested. Each time I gave them a gift—like a story about the time I botched a science fair project—I liked them a little more, the generosity of my spirit increased.
  • I rewarded myself. After my bad seventh-period class one year, I always opened the top drawer of my desk for a packet of almonds. This almost made me look forward to seventh period.

Clashing, I’ve found, requires energy I’d rather spend on teaching.


Helping the Good Kids to Not Hurt the Bad Kids

You ask the good kids in almost any class, and they’ll tell you who the bad kid is. This is the kid everyone points to when something goes wrong, the kid it’s okay to pick on, the kid outside the social circle, the kid who bears the brunt of group dissatisfaction—the scapegoat. If it weren’t for this kid, the class would be better.

But it isn’t usually this simple. Some classes seem to feel the need to produce a bad kid. The bad kid livens boring lessons, serves as the common enemy, and boosts the status of the good kids—making their antics seem harmless compared to the bad kid’s atrocities.

Bad deeds, of course, need consequences, but it’s when the narrative moves from a kid having a problem to a kid being the problem that scapegoating occurs. Someone, it seems, needs to be at the bottom so others can claim the top.

In a Dr. Seuss story, the bottommost turtle is Mack. Yertle, the king in the story, wants to see further, to increase his influence and so turtles, all stepping on the neck of poor Mack, pile themselves on top of him to create a higher throne. In pain Mack finally speaks to the top of the stack.

“I know up on top you are seeing great sights
But down at the bottom we, too, should have rights.”

Teachers often protect good kids from bad kids. But how can teachers also keep good kids from hurting bad kids—from blocking their sights and taking their rights? Here are some strategies:

  • Help good kids see that the scapegoat’s problems are something in which the whole class participates. Ask questions of students who have trouble with a bad kid—are you helping or hurting Matt? Are you finding ways Matt can help you? Are you looking for good in Matt?
  • Work against displacement. Help good kids see how the gap widens when bad kids are ostracized in the lunch room, not invited to parties, and ignored in the hallways. Encourage good kids to stop excluding and start including.
  • Complicate students’ views of bad and good. Knocking a chair to a floor is bad, yes. But so is the rolling of eyes, a judging attitude, and a looking-down from the top of the heap.

In the Yertle, the Turtle, story, no one listens to Mack, down there on the bottom. So Mack takes further measure:

“That plain little turtle below in the stack,
That plain little turtle whose name was just Mack,
Decided he’d taken enough. And he had
And that plain little lad got a little bit mad
And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing
He burped! And his burp shook the throne of the king!”

We’ve read too many times in the news about measures bottommost students have taken. And good kids can play a reaching role—to help and not hurt.

Syncing the Out-of-Sync

Teaching isn’t simple. You can walk, for example, into a classroom and find that students range from grade three to grade ten in reading ability. How to challenge all without frustrating some—this is the daily dilemma.

But what also complicates teaching is described by a daunting phrase—asynchronous development. Understanding this concept has helped me understand students. And it’s helped students understand themselves.

Take the word apart, I tell students. Chronos means time. It’s the Greek root for chronology. Syn means same, like in synonym. And the prefix a means not.

So if you put it together, asynchronous development means that not all the parts of you develop at the same rate.

Annie, a student in the gifted program, is an example of asynchronous development. One morning when she was in second grade, she showed up for class, her face wan and strained. Her eyes pooled when I pulled my stool next to her.

“I didn’t sleep all night,” she whispered.

And her mom confirmed this when we talked. Annie had watched the news, understanding far more about the recent terrorist attack than most second graders would, more than she could handle.

Annie’s intellectual development and her emotional development were out of sync. And this required greater vigilance by her adults.

Tom, a seventh grade student of mine, showed a different profile, running the household, as he did, for his emotionally and intellectually challenged mother. Tom read below grade level, but he managed his younger siblings with skill, keeping them in clean shirts, helping them with homework, and even showing up at their parent-teacher conferences to help his mother understand. Tom’s emotional maturity far surpassed his intellectual powers. Tom learned best when I acknowledged his asynchronous development, when I matched my tones to his level of responsibility.

Teachers, then, manage not only differing levels among students. They also watch for varying levels within students. Teachers face the daily dilemma of bringing into some kind of synchrony all that is out of sync.


The Burden of Best

“Do your best,” teachers tell students. And most times that’s good advice. But these words place a heavy burden on some students.

The most exhausted students I taught were perfectionists. I found them in all my classrooms—in the prison school, at the middle school, and in the college classes I taught. But perfectionists showed up most often in my gifted classes. These students with high intelligence were familiar with success—but not with failure.

Most of them had grown up succeeding without effort. But at some point, all gifted students—in middle school accelerated classes or high school Advanced Placement courses or college honors or a Ph.D. program—come to a place where effort is required and failure actually seems possible.

Their standards are so high that the new challenges they face can be met only with great difficulty, or not at all. And anything short of perfection, they feel, would lead to disaster.

Some of my students could find only one way out—procrastination. The only way to avoid failure, they figured, was to not start at all or to start but not finish. As long as they didn’t commit, the possibility of perfection remained.

These students linked what they did with who they were. They felt pressured to demonstrate their worth through performance, avoiding mistakes at great cost. Many of them struggled with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and even self-harm.

The irony is that students learn best as they make mistakes. And they don’t learn much when they do nothing because they’re afraid they will make one.

So what tools can move students out of this trap of disabling perfectionism? Here are some mantras for self-talk I passed on to students:

  • It’s not all or nothing. Let go of the on and off switch, I’d say, and use a dimmer switch. It’s not all success or all failure. Look for the bad in the good and good in the bad. According to legend, someone once asked Thomas Edison, “How did it feel to fail 999 times while you invented the lightbulb?”

“I didn’t fail 999 times,” Edison reportedly said. “I found 999 ways not to make a lightbulb.”

  • I probably won’t die. Perfectionists tend to catastrophic thinking. If I make a mistake (or get a B or don’t become the valedictorian), I won’t survive the humiliation. Actually, not reaching a standard can often relieve pressure and increase energy in other parts of life.

“I just wish she’d get a B and find out she’ll live,” one parent told me.

  • Live 3-D. Perfectionists often fixate on the possibility of failure. Their focus narrows, letting negatives push positives out of their thinking. And so they lose the balance other parts of life can bring—the catharsis of exercise, the support of relationships, the inspiration of the arts. When students find extra-academic richness, they keep healthier perspectives.

Teachers dream of classrooms of students who want to do their best. But perhaps a better scenario is classrooms of students who value learning so much they’re willing to risk failure to learn.

You Mess with Matt; You Mess with Me

“Mrs. Swartz,” Matt said to me after school one day, “I’d like to talk to the class about Tourette Syndrome.”

Matt’s eyes blinked fast, and his head jerked.

“Tell me about this,” I said.

Matt told me he was in a group with other kids who had Tourette Syndrome. At the last meeting the group had been talking about kids at school who avoided them and mimicked their tics and asked rude questions like, ”That’s not catching, is it?” or “Did you take the wrong vaccine?”

“What can we do?” a kid asked the leader.

And that’s when she told them about peer presentations—a kid with Tourette Syndrome educating classmates about it.

“I’ve been thinking about this,” Matt said. “And I want to do it. This could help the next kid with Tourette Syndrome who comes along.”

The day before his presentation, Matt stopped after class.

“I made a slide show,” he said, handing me a flash drive, “and could I choose a friend to stand up there with me?”

Matt’s friend, I discovered the next day, was the captain of the football team. He stood three feet from Matt, feet planted shoulder-width, hands on hips, elbows akimbo. During Matt’s presentation, the football captain scanned the room like a Secret Service agent, daring the slightest disrespect.

Matt showed the class diagrams to explain how the brain controls movement.

“Most of you,” Matt told the class, “have brains that tell your body to stop moving. Your brains can tell your eyes to stop blinking fast and your head to stop jerking.”

At this moment, Matt’s head jerked twice, and the football captain stood an inch taller.

“But my brain,” Matt went on, “doesn’t have stop signs for head jerking.”

Students were listening, I could tell.

“Sometimes,” Matt said, “I can delay a head jerk, kind of like you can put off a sneeze.”

Matt smiled ruefully.

“But eventually,” he said, “the jerk wins.”

Then Matt asked students to stopping blinking, to hold off a blink as long as they could.

“Raise your hand,” he said, “when you have to blink.”

When all the students’ hands were in the air, Matt concluded.

“That’s how I feel a lot,” he said.

As the students clapped, Matt went to his seat. But the football captain stayed.

“Just to tell you,” he said. “You mess with Matt, you mess with me.”

And no one did, not then, and not the rest of the school year.

That’s Not Fair

My mother-in-law told me once that when her children were young, she discovered how to divide the last piece of cake fairly between two children—one cut the piece in half and the other chose the first piece.

“I’d never seen such preciseness,” she told me. “And neither child could complain that the division wasn’t fair.”

Toward the beginning of my teaching career, I taught two populations: inmates and middle school kids. And in both places I heard the word fair many times a day.

The mantra for staff members at the prison was firm, fair, and consistent. We heard these words at in-service trainings and in our performance reviews. And students in the prison school often used the word fair, many times with the word not in front of it.

Middle school kids also have an obsession with fairness. And when they protest unfairness, teachers have a quick response.

“Life’s not fair,” teachers say, as reflexively as they take their next breaths.

But what is fair?

For too long, I treated the words fair and equal as synonyms. To avoid favoritism, I parsed out equal amounts of attention, resources, and rewards. But the classroom soon taught me that treating everyone exactly the same is actually not fair—that equality works only if students begin at the same place and need the same help.

If equality is treating all students the same, equity is giving each student what she or he needs to be successful. And some students need more.

Students who are furthest behind, students with challenges at home, and students who are on the edges of the bell-curve—cognitively, emotionally, or physically—all need greater resources, more involved help.

And what happens when students notice that others get more?

I’ve found it doesn’t take much to help students see that fairness is more than equal treatment, that not everyone starts at the same place and not everyone has the same needs, that although equity may at first appear unfair, it really levels the playing field.

When I was a kid, I’d tell students, my parents didn’t have much money. A pair of shoes or a broken window was a big deal. And we watched how our parents spread their pennies around—who got what and who got the most.

One month my parents spent more money on me than on anyone else, way more. They bought a pair of glasses for me.

Then I asked my students, “Was this fair?”

And then we talked about the differences between equality and equity. They almost always got it.

They started seeing why one student used an audio book and another extended time on a test. And they accepted that, even though they would like to sit on an exercise ball instead of a chair, another student needed it more.

Being fair, they began to realize, was more complicated than they thought.