When my middle daughter took her first MCAS (the Mass. state test for kids grades 3-8 and 10th) she came home and announced that MCAS stands for "Murder Children at School". When she had to take a science MCAS last year, based on science she had done almost 2 years previous to that, she cried as soon as she walked in the front door, saying that she felt so stupid.
Every time I think about my first year of teaching 20 years ago, I realize just how little I knew and understood about teaching. I was a new, young teacher with no experience in the classroom (not even student teaching) and no education classes or training. I was lucky to have some great mentors to help me, and as all throughout my teaching career, my own parents,teachers themselves, who were always helpful. Other than that, it was learning on the job. Luckily, classroom management was easy and discipline was a non-issue in the private, elite, girls' school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I taught. Even at the time, the $25,000 yearly tuition was steep and the population was mostly comprised of wealthy, white girls from the immediate area.
That first year, I wanted desperately for my students to LIKE me. I was only 7 years older than some of them, had recently lived on my own in Paris, and was one of the younger teachers at the school, so I did have some element of "coolness". I remember feeling so happy and relieved when, after the first week, my supervisor Madame Tellier said to me "On n'entend que du bien de vous!" (Only good things are being said about you). I also liked my students a lot; they were fun, curious, and friendly, and for the most part, down to earth.
It wasn't until years later that I realized that it doesn't matter so much whether or not your students LIKE you. More importantly,do you love them? And do they feel YOU care about THEM? I now know that there were students about whom I really cared when I was at my first school, and that I shouldn't have spent so much energy worrying if they liked me. I even had a very special group of girls (some of whom I am still in touch with) who threw me my first baby shower, when I was pregnant with my first child, at one of their homes.
Now I believe that while it's great if you also LIKE your students, and they like you, it's more important for them to feel you care about their learning, their future, and their well-being. This was brought home to me when my colleague and I welcomed a new student about 3 weeks ago. He had already been in New York for 2 years before he got here. The day I tested him, he was sullen and shy and refused to say much. This made it hard for me to get an adequate idea of his English level; now I see that he knows much more than he let on! (#testfailure) His mom told me he had had some trouble at his old school. We asked about his history there, even had the guidance counselor call them, but we couldn't find out much more.
In class the first few days, he opened up a little more, but my colleague and I realized that this student had weak "studentship" skills and had big gaps, not only in Spanish and English, but also in content. My colleague made a comment that has stuck with me since the first week; she said, "Maybe no one really took the time to care for this student enough at his other school; no one held him to any standards because they didn't care". While not blaming the other school, which is a city school with all the challenges that being at a mostly ELL, poor urban school, sometimes l bring, my colleague might be right. Maybe there were too many ELL students in a class and the student fell between the cracks.
We don't really know much about what really happened, but I do know that already he is changing. We tell him we care. When he does not pay attention or disrupts in class, we call him on it - with love and a smile. He sees that we have high expectations for him, that he cannot hide or just get by at our relatively small school, that we will call home when he doesn't do his homework, but also when he does great work. He will begin to see that we have his back. I hope that we will not let him down.
I have had a fascinating and busy few weeks evaluating new students - 5 in the last 3 weeks or so - and it's been a whirlwind of activity. My new students are Korean, Cambodian, Dominican, and Chinese and come, of course, with widely ranging levels of English and academic backgrounds. The dynamics in my classes have completely shifted because of the newcomers. On the one hand, it's fun to learn about the new students and to have fresh faces in class; on the other hand it is causing some interesting, funny, and difficult situations to deal with.
Please share if you have any stories about cultural misunderstandings! Would love to hear them.