When a Teacher Messes Up

When a Teacher

I’ve been teaching long enough, and at the same school long enough, to predict, with some accuracy, how an activity will play out in the classroom. Teaching is all about managing your expectations and then feeling absolutely ecstatic when (if?) things go better than planned. Usually, this skill at prediction serves me well, but I was reminded on Friday of a pitfall of doing this.

My senior classes are starting Jeannette Wells’ memoir Glass Castle next week. If you have not read the book (you should!) it recounts Wells’ upbringing with two very unusual and dysfunctional parents. The memoir relates Wells’ life of extreme poverty. In the book, the parents repeatedly turn down any aid or public assistance. In fact, there are several frustrating moments where the parents make choices that result in homelessness, hunger, and even the endangerment of their children. This is, in fact, a criticism of the book: that a reader may get the impression that poverty is a choice, simply a lifestyle option. 

The district I teach in is not terribly diverse racially, but it has great economic disparity. So, while introducing this text, I wanted to be sure I addressed with my classes that a certain level of sensitivity was needed as we address the topic of poverty. I showed a documentary that I have used in class before. It’s called America’s Poor Kids. The film follows three families who have been thrust into poverty and homelessness as a result of job loss. The film is told through the eyes of the children in each family. My worry when tackling this issue was that students would make insensitive comments, and I thought hearing the narrative from the mouths of children might stifle this.

So I give my classes the warning about just watching and working to understand. The plan is to discuss on Monday, so they can jot notes, but I don’t want comments. I remind them that they have classmates who may identify with some of the things in this film. I know teenagers. I know they giggle at uncomfortable parts. They comment on people, places, accents, clothing that is different than they are used to. I went into this on high alert.

That’s why, when one of my more analytical students spoke up, I jumped on him. One of the families in the film is living in a homeless shelter. During one of the scenes, this student noticed that the mother had her nails done, so he blabs out, “Time’s are so tough mom gets her nails done?” I didn’t think. I reacted. I immediately snapped at him. I said something about this time being for “learning not judging” and that we don’t know the entire situation. I don’t exactly remember, but it was quick and snippy and he apologized right away (because he’s a good bean). I think it was his immediate and sincere apology that caught me off guard. The class went back to watching the film and I sat there processing what had just happened. I was kind of steaming, imaging all of the judgmental thoughts the kids might be thinking, but I also felt guilty. Maybe he really didn’t mean it the way it sounded?

Between classes I vented to my colleague in the room next door and then went back in and taught the same lesson to my next class period. This class cried (literally) when one family had to give their dog up and sat wide-eyed in complete silence the entire time. This cooled my blood pressure and I began to think about what that student had said in the previous hour.

In reality, he voiced what many of us, in our deepest selves, sometimes think. How did she have the money to get her nails done? In one scene, a child is wearing a Hollister shirt. Certainly this wasn’t actually purchased from Hollister?

So I started generating a list of assumptions, questions, and topics around poverty. I had started the class by telling the students that poverty is complex, but then, when one student raised this complexity, I shut it down. In hindsight, I wish I would have encouraged him to jot his thoughts down so that we could discuss his question on Monday. I wish I hadn’t assumed he was making a rude, classist accusation.

But I didn’t, so now I asked myself about how I will move forward.

I went to my standbys: Ruby Payne, Johnathon Kozol, and Barbara Ehrenreich. At my local library I found a book called Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado. I searched the web and bookmarked some good reads. I will spend the weekend reading and thinking and preparing.

I decided, on Monday, the following would happen:

  1. I would publicly apologize to said student for my snippy reaction
  2. I would validate his question/comment and provide a few other assumptions/judgements/questions many people have about poverty.

And then we will start learning. 

While working through Glass Castle we will work through Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty. We will read, journal, discuss, and question. We will learn.

As I’ve thought about this the past 24 hours, I’ve contemplated how much better off we’d all be if we did the thinking, questioning, and learning part first, before we did the judging, snapping, and insulting part. I’m not entirely sure I am a good enough teacher to relay this successfully to 120 seniors, but I’m going to make it my goal for this next unit to try.

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