Teaching and Watching for the Next Rehteah Parsons

lossy-page1-800px-STUDENTS_AND_TEACHER_IN_A_CLASSROOM_AT_CATHEDRAL_HIGH_SCHOOL_IN_NEW_ULM,_MINNESOTA._THE_TOWN_IS_A_COUNTY_SEAT_TRADING..._-_NARA_-_558214.tifShe edged into my classroom, hoping not to be noticed as the new kid to the school.  It was late January of her 9th grade year.  I read her demeanor immediately.  She didn’t want a fuss, she didn’t want to talk, she shut down, closed herself off to the friendly smiles, built a brick wall around her difficult to penetrate.  I respected her unspoken wishes, quickly introduced her to the class, and got on with the lesson on rocket propulsion.  I quickly scratched out two notes.  One to her to see me after class for her materials, the other to a trusted student council member to join us.  I dropped them on their desks without missing a beat in the lesson.

After class, I introduced the two students to each other, and through some luck and a bunch of creative manipulation to work around her  apprehension, I was able to forge a mentoring relationship between the two, one that soon became a friendship.  Over the next couple weeks, I saw cracks forming in the walls she built.  I took every opportunity, as I did with all students, to talk with her as much as I could.  She was bright, and she was more comfortable with showing just how bright she was as we worked on our rocket design, testing, and redesign.

And then it happened one day during a lesson, the silent tears streaming down her face, soaking her paper and smearing the ink.  The other students were so engaged in the lesson, they barely noticed, or pretended not to, not quite sure how to handle the outpouring of emotion occurring steps from them.  One student placed her hand on her shoulder in silent support.  With little drama and barely a mention, I pulled her into my office, asking a colleague to cover the class.

It was there she told me the reason she moved.  Her father had been shot in the head.  He survived, but needed constant care.  They both moved in with an aunt as he rehabilitated, her mother completely out of the picture.  She felt like he was holding stuff back, feared that he was still in danger. She was struggling.  At 14, she had seen more than her fair share of hard times.

I listened.  I could not make her home life better.  It was a rough road.  I could, however, do everything in my power to make sure in this place, in my classroom, she was respected, listened to, supported, encouraged.

This is not an uncommon tale.  As a matter of fact, it is becoming more and more prevalent. We hear stories everyday about gang violence, and poverty.  We hear stories of those students bullied relentlessly.  We hear stories like Rehtaeh Parsons’ story, who was raped, bullied, and ultimately committed suicide to end her pain.  Every teacher is faced with students that have stories, both good and bad.

We must remember, that teachers need to teach each and every one of these students. Teaching is not an easy profession. We take an amalgam of students, each with their own personality, their own story, their own way of learning, their own misconceptions, their own way of seeing the world.  Teachers have to get each and every one of those students proficient in the standards of the day, regardless of whether their bellies are empty, or if they are beaten at home, or if they were bullied on the playground, or if they were raped, or if their father was shot in the head and is fighting for his life.

Teaching is an impossible job at times. As a society and as taxpayers we look to why our education system is failing. We look for accountability, for someone to blame, for an answer. Often, that blame falls to the teacher. But this is a much bigger problem then poor teachers. This is a problem of failing to recognize that we take care of each other, a problem of failing to recognize that we are not teaching a hive collective mind. We are teaching individuals. We are teaching people who have curious minds and boundless abilities if they are cared for, listened to, cultivated properly. And yet, too often we fail. We fail at providing even the most basic needs of our young people: food, shelter, a safe place to live, love, boundaries, and a sense of right and wrong. As a society, we need to offer support, encouragement, and guidance to these kids. We need to find their strengths and develop them.

One-size fits all testing does not work for this very reason. Such testing is innovation crushing, denies individualism, and does not address some of the bigger societal problems. It takes time away from actual learning, takes time away from supporting our students in their goals. So, until a test can be developed that can measure  a persons ability to overcome adversity, a persons ability to be innovative, to be a true problem solver, to think rather than regurgitate information, I think we are headed down the wrong educational path.

Corina Fiore is The Broad Side’s Science and Education Editor.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/National Archives

  • I love the quote from the Maryland superintendent of education who said the best education reform is healthcare reform. I don’t believe schools are failing our kids; society is.

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