Woe, the Aggravation

Recently, I blogged about my constant struggle to instill the value of taking pride in one’s work – more importantly, doing work of which one can be proud – in my students.

Children lack the experience to wisely look at themselves long-term, and see where benefits may arise if they consistently produce their best work.  Will I ever see a day when my own students (this year’s or the future’s) actually internalize what I preach and I am able to inspire them into greatness?

Two anecdotes supplement these thoughts. Despite two straight wonderful days in the classroom (preparation, engagement, enjoyment), they still linger.

A colleague and I recently were given 41 Broadway theater tickets to distribute to our classes for a trip. That total wouldn’t cover our two classes combined. Realizing we couldn’t bring our entire classes, and recognizing that students in other classes would really benefit, we decided to extend an offer to other teachers to choose X number of children to join us. Of course, as we increased the number of participating teachers, the number of tickets for our classes dwindled, leaving us in the awkward and challenging position of choosing only so many students of our own to attend the show.

I made my decision at home a couple of evenings ago. My criteria for selecting which students of mine I would invite revolved around who I feel best embodies the behaviors I require if you are my student. So those who were most studious, interested, and invested – simply put, the hardest workers – were offered the tickets.

The morning I announced the news about who would be invited on the trip, I was extremely nervous. I knew many kids would be devastated that they weren’t chosen. But I also knew that I was being fair. I used the opportunity to illustrate an important point: hard work pays off. We had a whole class discussion about my expectations of my students. They could all tell me what I value: respect, hard work, homework completion, and participation. I explained that I used these criteria to make my decision.

After announcing who would receive a ticket, I looked out to see two groups of students. Fourteen sat there with proud smiles, varying degrees of surprise, gratitude, and embarassment on their faces. The other 14 looked down at the ground, picked at their sleeves, tapped on their sneakers, and let their eyes turn red and watery. You could tell in their faces they were heartbroken. I figured they would be (why else the nervousness?) so I was prepared. I explained that there are rewards for hard work. In the short term, a reward is this trip. However, I told them it could also be getting into the middle school you want. Maybe it will affect where you go to college and where you work. But in the end, if you work hard, you will be rewarded. While I did feel sorry for them, I hoped I was making an important connection in their minds.

As a way to give everyone a chance to be on even ground again, and knowing our fantasy unit was nearing a close, I extended a deal to my class. I told them that all they had to do to participate in the class celebration was bring in their final piece of writing today. I wrote on the homework: “No publish? No celebrate.” and drilled it into their heads all day.

Four students still came in without their writing published. I was firm. I didn’t raise my voice or engage them in discussion. All I said was when we had our celebration, they’d have to leave the room. Those who did do their work were treated to a very enjoyable period of sharing and snacking.

Tonight, when I sat down to begin reading some of their published pieces, I was mortified to discover three instances of students trying to dupe me.

Case number 1. I was reading one girl’s story and I tell you, it was outstanding. There was humor and evidence of a real command of the genre. Just when it was getting good (and the villain entered the picture) it ended.  It’s clear to me she decided that she’d hand that in, be able to attend our celebration, and assume I would never think twice about it. Well, if she wasn’t such a wonderful writer and I wasn’t such a…teacher, she’d be right. Yet in this case, she’s wrong, and tomorrow I will have to speak to her about the choice she made.

Case number 2. One of the stories that I was really intrigued by – through conferencing with the student – came to the top of my pile. The front page, on my fancy paper, was fairly sloppy, but then again, I reasoned, the girl is not the neatest writer. I flipped through to get a general sense of what I’d be reading, and I discovered a slew of scotch tape repairs, scratch outs, and cut and pasted papers. I couldn’t read it. It also found its way to the “Deal With Tomorrow” pile.

Case number 3. An egregious error in judgement to be sure, but perhaps the slightest transgression of the three cases. The young man handed in his work, but when I sat down to read it, I discovered patches of it were in one of his parent’s manuscript. This defies all logic, as the words are uniquely the student’s, yet the writing is not. He will be required to copy it in his own handwriting.

My point is this: when will my students learn? I tolerate a lot, but I don’t accept lack of effort. If I don’t enforce it, who will? If I do enforce it, will they buy into it? I don’t know the answers to these questions, and I suspect it will be many years until I do. All I know is that the aggravation level is too high at this point. It doesn’t need to be. Better things can come to my students should they make an investment in themselves.  I’m trying not to take this personally anymore, and I realize it’s not about me. But it is about them. They need to start caring about themselves the way I care about them.

Speaking of being proud, read this post about a Bengali girl coming to take pride in sharing her culture with her non-Bengali classmates. It really touched me. It’s the kind of thing I love as a teacher – the family element of the classroom – and it’s so wonderful to read about others who are cultivating it.

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