From the Classroom: Toughest to Teach
By Brian Kelley
In preparation for a guest appearance in a Classroom Management course at Temple University, adjunct professor―and PAWLP co-director―Jolene Borgese asked her college students to email questions to me.
One question gnaws at me. For several days I have felt the need to write about it: Which students are toughest for you to teach? How do you address those students?
If I answered this question twenty years ago, I would have said the resistant students. My answer is different today. Yes, even after 20 years, I still find some students tough to teach. And I think I always will.
The toughest students for me are the students whom I do not know.
This one, my friends, is squarely on me. Not on the students.
It makes me smile to admit it because I don’t think I was aware enough twenty years ago to realize I was struggling. I may have been sanitized, confused, and distracted by so much well-intentioned (but poor) advice: you aren’t their friend, you aren’t their friend, you aren’t their friend.
Well, what is the opposite of friend? If not their friend, what am I supposed to be?
I fell into the familiar role of judge which suits education so well. A judge is cold, distant, and disconnected. A judge is never a friend. A judge sits above the rest. A judge bangs a gavel, calls in a bailiff, throws people out of his space, and above all else, a judge passes cold judgement.
I was a judge for too long. I didn’t know I was supposed to be a mentor.
Donald Graves, the mentor’s mentor, writes in A Sea of Faces about an act he tried to accomplish as soon as possible once a new school year began: write down as much as you can about every student. And repeat the act often throughout the year.
Graves writes, “After I have memorized the names in alphabetical order, I begin to stick some traits next to each name. I memorize the names from beginning to end, or I try to write them from memory. Of course, I first learn the bright and the tough students; they are memorable. It is the children who are less engaged that are difficult.”
This is incredibly difficult for me during the first few weeks of school. When I review how Graves had command of this activity I am astounded. Every few days his knowledge of his students grew by leaps and bounds. Initially, I considered myself incapable of doing what Graves did.
But I was mistaken.
It just takes time. I can do it. You can do it too. We get better at it with time–and commitment. Last year it took me more than half of the year to be able to write something unique about each of my students. This year I am already there―because I learned to listen better. Actually, I learned to talk less first.
Graves advises, “I try to place solid nouns opposite each name. William Carlos Williams writes, “No ideas but in things.”
[Note: pseudonyms are used here]
This is a screenshot of my current Google Doc where I keep my notes. I know that Tessa is an intensely dedicated visual artist and that Steve is related to a man who I coached against. Kathy’s dog goes “insane” (her words”) when he hears a milk carton, and Jake’s grandparents mail him pictures of their slaughtered goat during Eid. When I asked him to tell me more about it, he said it is a symbol of cleansing away one’s sins. Maureen knows she is lucky to have a large and close family. Tony plays baseball and has a heart of gold and integrity to match it―he sent me an email apologizing for something he did not really need to apologize for. Cynthia never really considered herself a reader before this year―now she does.
None of this means I know these kids well yet, but it at least inches me closer to knowing them better. Remember, the most difficult student to teach is not about student behavior―he/she is the one whom we do not know.
Like most, I am actively engaged with my students. I make an effort to talk to the students in the hall, at the door, at lunch―in all of those spaces between the standards and the assessments. The difference now is that I also listen and read to remember―a huge change for me. Our students share so much about themselves every time they speak or write. I am now a very deliberate processor of that information because I have come to understand why it matters.
More goes into a being an effective mentor, of course, than knowing our students: modeling good reading and writing habits in the classroom, handling one’s responsibilities (a.k.a. being a reader and writer away from the classroom), regular reflection, talking with our students about the strategies they used in their writing and what strategies they might try next. Donald Graves writes that we should always try to walk away from a conference with a student knowing that they have an idea or plan about what to try next.
Being a mentor is a journey. I will never perfect it because there is always something new and always someone new. There are and will always be students who are the most difficult for me to teach because I do not know them―yet.
Brian Kelley teachers 8th-grade creative writing at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania; his podcast about families and heritage “I Remember” can be found on iTunes; you can connect with him on Twitter @_briank_ or on his blog: walkthewalkblog.blogspot.com.