This is a letter to a friend who is struggling this year with a small, but powerful, group of students. This group, and their equally vocal parents, are leading a “complain campaign” against the teacher. What is the problem? The teacher is working to create an environment where all students can be successful, where all students are capable of making progress and where all students, at the very least, allow their classmates to grow and to thrive. (Although ideally they would encourage each other.)
There is a group of students, encouraged by parents, who feel that this is not appropriate. They have been very successful in other classes by being “better” than other students. They do not understand, nor like, being part of a paradigm in which every student has value.
Are they saying this out loud? Not exactly. They are saying that the teacher’s methods are ineffective. But their meaning is clear. It is troublesome. It is exhausting. It has turned into a “me vs. them” scenario for the teacher. The students and parents are attacking the integrity of the teacher. Even though, all of the students, INCLUDING THOSE COMPLAINING, are doing very well.
We have all been there. Too many of us are there every day. (and right now, because the profession is being targeted, it is particularly painful!) When this happens we feel as if we are walking on eggshells, not even really knowing what we are doing wrong and certainly not sure how to fix it. What we want is for it to just get better. To get a do over with a group of kids. To make it go away.
So this teacher asked me, “What can I do?” And this is my answer. I asked the teacher if I could share it just in case there is another teacher out there, in another district, with other students, but feeling the same way. The teacher graciously agreed. Please remember that this is just a collection of my thoughts, certainly no definitive answer to anyone’s problems. But as our colleague Bryce Hedstrom often says, “We are all in this together.”
From time to time there are students that clarify our work for us. This seems
to be one of those groups for you.
These students are a product of their environment, which you clearly understand. At their age they have not had enough experiences to think differently. They are also savvy enough to know when agreeing with the status quo is in their best interest…and this is benefiting them …..in their minds….so they are perpetuating this. What you also understand is that this is NOT in their best interest, now or in the future. But you will not convince them of that, nor their parents. This is an insight that (as the word implies) must come from within..and in its own time. But….I PROMISE you that many of these students will come to see this in time. Many. I can only make this promise because I see and hear from many former students (and by now I have well over 3000 of them!!). I am constantly amazed at how they mature (many of them when they have their own children) and come to appreciate the messages I tried to include in my teaching when they were teenagers.
If you can, when you can, step back and stay out of their circle of thinking. They will graduate and move on. It feels as if these attitudes will forever prevail, but they will not. Often an entire school will change when one group of negativity graduates. I have seen it happen many times. Remember that while it seems as if their behavior stems from a need for power, that nee for power ultimately stems from a place of fear. Fear can only be overcome with love and/or knowledge. You offer these things. You will never be able to control when/if they will be ready to hear the message. Again, that will have to come from within these individuals.
In the meantime, you are offering hope, faith and love to students who do not have it. That is life-changing…for you and for them. If this is what calls you, follow it. Follow it as far as you are able. It connects you to a greater community than the little power-hungry social group can ever be a part of. I am grateful every day to be a part of that. I am grateful every day for the others that are doing the same.
It’s tough dealing with these kids, and worse when they have formed a group with parental backing. Very tough. Exhausting. Soul-crushing even. I’m so thankful that you have administrative support. What a gift!!!! The truth is that you really must be shifting the status quo. You know that you are doing an amazing job of that when the folks who have been “in charge” really want to find fault with you. That is not fun, but it is their FEAR talking. They want to accuse you of not doing your job because they feel that you are threatening their “way of life.’ I know that you are not trying to ‘take down” a social group, just love and teach kids. It’s annoying and frustrating to be accused of something you would not do/be. Just because they say it doesn’t mean that it is true and it doesn’t mean that others will believe it, even if those that believe in you don’t stand up for you.
I know a number of other teachers who have been, or are, where you are. Some saw the culture change. Some have accepted that they are fighting an uphill battle and simply try to stay under the radar. Some move to other districts where they are not alone in their support of equal education for all.
Eventually you will have to make one of these decisions, or your own. You will know when it is time.
In the meantime, I am going to ask you to try to do something that may seem very
Do not try to win these students over. Do not try to heal this relationship. Right now, it is not a healthy relationship, it’s abusive. The recipient of the abuse will never be able to heal a relationship with an abuser. Only the abuser can do that ….and these students do not have the maturity, nor the desire, to do so.
Right now your job is to be a teacher, and in some ways, a parent to these students. Not a friend. It does not matter whether or not they like you if they only want you to do things their way. To truly love them, to truly be their teacher, you will have to continue to do what is in their best interest whether they approve or not.
There are several challenges to that.
1. They are in many ways, the “popular” kids. Choosing not to cater to their “popularity” will be confusing to many students, and to many adults. But it will set a precedent for others who will, in time, be able to follow it. You will be a role model in the truest sense of the word. Other students will see how to handle a bully without being bullied, without giving up your dignity.
2. You will have to find ways to honor these students OTHER THAN honoring their
popularity and social power. This may not be a challenge for you at all. But it may be a very different experience for them. They are only accustomed to receiving artificial kudos rather than sincere ones. Be patient if they reject your positive comments about participation, assisting others, offering insight, etc. It will confuse them. They may reject it. They may mock it. But they will hear it.
3. You will have to rise above emotions. Emotions are their weapon, their target, their currency. Particularly insecurity and hurt. Picture yourself and strong, kind, caring and too mature to be damaged by their game. “Rise Above” will become your mantra. IT IS NOT YOU they are attacking. IT IS NOT YOU. They know that there is a piece of each of us that is vulnerable to being left out, pointed out, isolated and humiliated. They know how to hurt. They have done it in the past. They have done it to avoid being hurt themselves. They may try to hurt you. Remember that you too are vulnerable, but that no child, even in a group, even supported by a parent, can determine your worth. You are caring, you feel called to provide an equal education for all, you believe that catering to this group is not what you are called to do.
It is not an easy road sometimes. That is why other teachers in your position
do not always stay the course.
EVERYTHING YOU FEEL IS JUSTIFIED. However you respond or react is whatever you
can do that day. Know that you are supported, no matter what happens. Do not expect perfection. You are human. This is hard.
Sadly, sometimes people put us up against a wall and we have to make a choice: do what they want or do what we want. IT SHOULDN’T HAVE TO BE THAT WAY. But sometimes it is.
What you won’t be able to do is turn students who are abusive into students who are not abusive in one day, one week, one month, or even, sadly, sometimes even in a school year. When they are ready for relationships with a balance of power, they will be willing to let you establish a better relationship.
“People can change. We can’t change people. We can only change ourselves.”
I don’t know where I heard/read this…but it has proven true over and over again.
If these students refuse to change, and that appears to be the case right now, you do have the ability to create a new relationship with them. A relationship where you respect them, but not their cruel behavior. A relationship where you appreciate their abilities to acquire language, to be citizens of the world, their potential to be leaders…but not their ability to ASSUME that they have inherited all of the knowledge about how these things happen.
What does that look like? That will be yours to decide. Perhaps you offer those students an option that is more to their “liking” to do quietly in a corner of the room. Perhaps that traditional “work” that they believe is so vital, but in the library where they won’t be disturbed by the work that you and your willing students are doing going on in the room. (All of this of course with the approval of your department chair and administration) Perhaps you only give these “learning” opportunities as extra credit for those extra-motivated-to-excel-on-paper
individuals. Perhaps they get a particular classroom responsibility that singles them out for responsibility and makes them feel recognized and honored, but doesn’t take away from instruction. Choices like this can be brainstormed with like-minded colleagues.
It may also mean that you include ways to recognize all students, including these kids. Clipping articles from the local paper and placing them on a bulletin board. Posting lists of the high honor roll. Congratulating scholarship recipients, Eagle Scouts, athletic accomplishments, getting a new job, the list could go on and on.
Whatever happens, have faith. You are making a difference. You already have. Above all remember…This too shall pass and you are NOT alone. It might not feel like it …but it’s true.
Hugs and love and support.