As a 22-looking-like-15-year-old teacher starting out two years ago in my own classroom teaching middle schoolers, some of whom actually were 15, it was tempting to use the “buddy” motivation system. I don’t look tough. The “No smiling ‘til Christmas” rule was dumb. And back then, I had no strong classroom management backbone. I just wanted to be the nice, friendly teacher who everyone liked and therefore behaved for. My lessons were going to be fun, I was going to teach math with different countries as monthly themes. They were going to love me.
Needless to say, the super nice teacher approach didn’t survive long. Nor did the monthly themes. I soon learned that I needed to be firm and that my time was focused on lesson planning and grading. Not integrating theme units. At least not yet.
I still got along well with most of my students, but not all of them. There was one eighth grader, “Natasha,” who refused to speak to me. She always maintained an angry glare at me during lectures. At one point, she nodded when I asked if she didn’t like me personally.
I was reminded of Natasha the other day when I read a study published by the Hoover Institution. It said that in low-income schools, parents prefer putting their students in high-performing teachers’ classrooms. In more affluent schools, where high performance is likelier the norm, parents request teachers who offer the most student satisfaction.
Natasha was definitely not a satisfied student. But after awhile, I stopped feeling hurt. The girl learned. Her original IEP goals focused on subtraction. By Christmas, she had memorized her multiplication facts, and was working on multi-operation equations. It was incredible. So what if she still didn’t speak to me?
But once she graduated from middle school, she kept coming back. She would loiter around and help with the Art Club. She would cut papers. She still wouldn’t talk to me really. She just kind of tagged along.
A few weeks later her mother dropped by and mentioned how much of a difference I made in Natasha. Even though high school was a tough transition, Natasha was able to go into inclusion pre-algebra and be ahead of the class. Her confidence increased and she became more comfortable with her other classes too.
I was taken aback. In my first-year confusion, I had assumed that even though Natasha learned tremendous amounts, she would never really appreciate me, because she didn’t like me. Luckily, I was wrong. We may not have had a lot of fun during the school year, but she made incredible academic gains. And it was those gains that took her far and brought her back.
This study by the Hoover Institution is yet another reminder that while no matter how impoverished or under-educated families may be, they still want the best for their children. What they didn’t mention was that even though some of them might not realize or articulate it, students want the best for themselves too.
The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.