If you don’t try, you may never understand.
My new student, J, was in his bright red basketball jersey and shorts, and he was doing his best not to shiver. Starbucks was as cold as a meat freezer.
But what he was saying warmed my mind. In the course of a short conversation, he’d already told me that as a kid he’d been pegged as “troublemaker.” Or, even worse, proving the little words matter: “THE Troublemaker.”
You wouldn’t know it now, from his composure even under the offensively strong air conditioning. But according to his teachers, he had “too much energy” and bounced around the room and, worst of all, Socrates be damned, he had too many questions.
I’m like: “Hold the sauce. How is it possible to have too many questions IN A CLASSROOM?”
He answered as if confessing, “Well, I blurted out whatever was on my mind.”
I usually find a lot to love in that kind of person, if they have even a little tact to match. “What do you mean, like you told people if you thought they were ugly?” I was trying to figure out what kind of questions turn you into a problem.
He shook his head: “No, no– it was more like I couldn’t accept answers just because they were commonly accepted. So if you told me 3 + 3 = 6, I couldn’t just accept it. I had to find out for myself if it was true.”
COME AGAIN? Is this not the mark OF A GENIUS?
Curiosity is an asset not a liability!
Maybe the AC was getting to me, but I felt fired up, like I wanted to pull in his elementary school teachers by the ear and give them a short course in intellectual curiosity, while also forcing them to eat the for-display-only-Starbucks-egg-sandwiches, to feel what it is to be silenced by something unpalatable.
Why would you ever make a kid like that think it’s bad to ask questions?
“They couldn’t deal with me,” he continued. “They passed me around the classes and no one wanted me. I was going to have to leave the school when finally the teacher of the smartest kids decided to take me. And he changed my life. He respected me, and he demanded respect. I wanted to work hard to make him happy. And he answered all my questions, even if they were unrelated to the topic. Discussion was open.”
DISCUSSION WAS OPEN. RED ALERT.
HE ANSWERED ALL MY QUESTIONS.
J was unaware, perhaps, that his college essay was practically falling out of his mouth, but I think he could see on my face that I was so into his story, and so appalled at the shut down treatment he’d received in school early in life.
Teachers that understand
The first thing J had said about himself was that he wanted to be a teacher.
So now I got to ask: Why?
“I think I know how to connect with kids like me,” he said. “I want to help them.”
“How?” I asked. I had a million questions too, and tried to dose them. “How do you help a 5th grader like you? How do you help a teen like you?”
If we were going to die from the freezing AC, I had to know STAT. Some questions are too important for faking like you don’t have them.
“Well,” he replied, like he’d thought this through a million times. “The younger ones just need to be able to walk around the room. They are not hurting anyone by doing that. But the older ones? It’s really important to take time to really get to know teenagers. Talk to them about what they do outside of your class, what they like, what they think about. Because only then will they be comfortable talking in your class, once you’ve taken time to understand them.”
Oh, people want TO BE UNDERSTOOD?!?
It struck me how painfully often this does not happen. Not even necessarily out of malintent. We forget that all of who we are comes with us into the classroom, as is true for our students. However our “whole self” is too often not welcome or acknowledged. The classroom may be a box, physically, but it doesn’t have to box us in mentally. It is the job of the adult to keep the door open, and to ask the students about who they are. And to actually care what they say.
And he’d put it so perfectly and simply: remember to try to understand.
Write, so they can understand you!
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