“Jingle Bells” joyously blasted throughout the grocery store as my daughter and I did some last minute shopping. We were standing in front of the Warhol-ish soup display when a woman quickly walked up to me. She literally put her face in front of mine and screamed, “WHAT’S WRONG B****?!!”
She turned and walked away. Stunned, my daughter and I reacted as most mature adults would…by giggling. Neither of us had seen this woman until she showed up in my face. A few aisles over, we encountered the woman again. This time she was yelling at the jars of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, “Look at you Peter! You think you are so cute in that hat! Jiffy will kick your a**!” Strangely, I felt better now. Clearly, this woman’s bells had been jingled one too many times. It was not my fault.
A few years later, when I worked as a mentor for novice teachers, I was in a middle school known for having serious discipline issues. Fights in the halls during passing periods were common, so I always waited for the halls to empty before I ventured out. One day, I was walking down a quiet hall and encountered a seventh grade boy who said to me, “You f***ing b****.” I was puzzled. What had I done to this young man to cause him to be so mad at me? I just smiled and said, “Excuse me. I apologize for annoying you. Would you tell me what I did to you so that I will never do it again?” My question threw him off his defensive balance, because he said, “Nothing. You’re just here.” By the end of our conversation he apologized to me, and all was well…sort of. It was not my fault.
In both instances, it seemed that the reason for the cursing was that I was just there. Walking down the halls of many urban secondary schools, the frustration of the seventh grade boy is magnified. I was a symbol of an adult whom many students hate. I was just there. So many students enter our classrooms full of skepticism because of their own personal histories with education. Students simply do not trust us. But that is not my fault.
Novice teachers are often placed in schools with the lowest test scores, minimum parental involvement, and serious school-wide discipline problems. The turnover rate for faculty is high, because no one wants to be there. Teach for America teachers often outnumber education majors in these schools. Even though many TFA teachers are earnest, hard-working and are amazing teachers, the students know the majority of them are there for two years and then are off to pursue other ventures. The students know that teachers do not last long in these challenging schools. Trust cannot be built when the foundation shifts constantly.
But, it’s not my fault.
Whose fault is it? Here are the easy (and often wrong) answers: The government doesn’t get it. The president (any president) doesn’t do enough. Federal and State governments are too bogged down in political hatred for the other side to see clearly. School boards are political and power hungry. No…it’s the parents’ fault. They are always working and don’t spend enough time with their children. Wait, actually, all the parents are collecting unemployment benefits and are too lazy to help. The building administration is not consistent or tough enough. What about the teacher unions? They make school districts keep lousy teachers. Teachers. That’s the ticket! It’s the teachers’ faults. They do not teach the right curricula. They give too much or not enough homework. There is not enough God in the classroom. “In my day, …!” Ok then, it’s the children. They are all lazy and spend too much time on electronic devices. Or maybe, the fault lies with drugs and guns.
All I know is that it’s just not my fault.
Or is it?
Teachers know that EDUCATION cannot be fixed by one person. However, the persistent optimism of one person is contagious. Having supportive principals will make a dramatic change in a school’s culture. Unfortunately, principals cannot always garner the needed emotions to create that tone. So, it’s left to the teachers. We can effect change in a powerful and purposeful way. It may just start with a smile.
I know that sounds ridiculously simple, but if you walked down school hallways, you will be surprised at how few smiles you will see from the adults. As a mentor, I had the opportunity to visit several schools. Teachers were rarely at the door greeting their students. That should be a priority. Whatever is at your desk can wait. Greet your students. Look them in the eye and smile. Don’t let them walk by you without a greeting. Do not give students a reason to hate you just because you are there. Challenge yourself to have a positive contact with every one of your students each day. Elementary teachers embrace this philosophy and prove its success daily. Even if you have 250 students, you can greet each one. If you miss greeting them at the door, make certain to have a personal interchange during class. Connect.
Don’t let the 7th grade boy down and fall victim to just being there.
Don’t give anyone the opportunity to ask you, “What’s wrong?”