Silence was golden until a tiny, fuzzy duckling began to waddle and quack across the middle of the classroom floor. Two of my brilliant students had hot-wired this little robot to move via a joystick which brought instant joy to the class. They had our attention.
T.S. Elliot’s concept of “doing the right thing for the wrong reason” was the topic in senior English. The opinions ricocheted off one student to another. Hands rose higher and higher from the frustration of not being called on to speak soon enough. In an act of total frustration, a young man popped up and suddenly started doing jumping jacks while yelling, “Pay attention to me! Pay attention to me!”
A young, anorexic woman walked the halls with her head bent so as not to meet the eye of anyone. Even when talking to friends, her head stayed lowered while her hair fell like a face mask. It was her turn to present her poetry project to the class. Every student seemed to hold their breath. She stood at the front of the class with her head bent. It was as though she were screaming, “Don’t pay attention to me!” The silence was broken by the sounds of desks scraping the floor. This amazing class had turn their desks around so that they would not be looking at her. She too turned. They were back to back. She presented and sat down. The class applauded and turned their desks back around. The next person stood up and took the front.
These examples illustrate the extremes in a classroom. We notice those. In a world filled with fascinating distractions, can educators and parents really pay attention all the time? Our attention is pulled to the extremes, and we often miss the middle – all the important stuff. The middle is where we average our lives. Let’s be honest; the media bombards us with extremes. Our interests are piqued, and we pay attention. It’s what we do.
When I look back on my teaching career, I would love to find some of my students and apologize for the mistakes I made. During my second year of teaching, our school principal announced at a faculty meeting that we all had to observe another teacher during the following month. Our focus was to see if there was a trend in whom we called on and/or corrected. I was mortified to find out that I called on the boys in my class two times more than the girls. I was using that as a way to keep the boys’ attention. It looked like a punishment rather than a teaching strategy. The “average” girl was sitting quietly and doing her work. However, I had no idea if she understood. She was not an extreme, so I left her alone.
Is Elliot right? Do we do the right things for the wrong reasons? I was calling on students for response but for all the wrong reasons. Many teachers I know say they decided to teach because they could touch lives in a positive manner. Some believe that the future of the world is based on teachers’ influences. Clearly, we have healthy egos if we believe we have the ability to change the world. Some of us are egomaniacs who find the classroom the only place where we can reign supreme. Our students either idolize us or hate us, but they learn in spite of us.
We need healthy egos to be educators, but we also need an occasional swift kick in the butt. What if our “average” students all did jumping-jacks, yelling “Pay attention to me!”? That would be a real butt kicker. I suspect we would call the principal for backup.
Here’s the truth we all should know: most of our students are quietly yelling for attention. Their social emotional learning needs are as great as their academic ones. Daily, we must attempt to reach out to every single student in our rooms. For some of us, that may be more than 200 students a day, but the reach doesn’t have to take mighty strength to have mighty force. Stand at the door and greet students as they enter. Pat shoulders. Look them all in the eye at least twice an hour. Show up occasionally for the extras like soccer games and choir concerts. Even in our overly busy lives, the effort can feel great, but it brings great dividends.
We are not teaching cute, fuzzy robotic children. These students understand more than we do. The class who moved their chairs to help the terribly shy student did so without the teacher’s influence. The young man who was excited to share his thoughts jumped up because his classmates were offering thought-provoking ideas. In both instances, the teacher was a mere observer. Perhaps the teacher had created a caring culture in the classroom that allowed for such behavior, or perhaps the teacher was just lucky. Either way, someone was paying attention: the students.