“So are you calling us stupid?!”

Teaching the standards takes time; so does building trust.

 

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Photo: Autumn Goodman on Unsplash

 

“So are you calling us stupid?!” a middle school student asked me two months into my first year of teaching. Her eyes bore straight through to my heart. It was 9:15 a.m. on a Monday during my first year of teaching in a small rural school in Missouri. Friday of that week seemed as far away as the following summer.

A sickening ache throbbed in my stomach. I clutched the lesson plans I had printed out the day before at home, and took a breath.

“No, I’m calling you careless,” I retorted.  I don’t even remember exactly what we were discussing. Probably sloppy handwriting, perpetual lateness, or a general lack of responsibility that I was amazed existed to such a degree in the vast majority of the students. Sure, some students cared. Some turned in their assignments on time. With their names on their papers. With legible handwriting. With responses written in sentences, instead of one or two words.  How my observation on my students’ work could be so questioned, and in such a belligerent tone from this particular student, stupefied me.

I had not signed up for this disrespect, this arrogance, this chaos at this point in my life. Sure, I had signed up for a Master’s degree. Actually, I was still in the process of obtaining a Master’s of Art in Teaching from Missouri State University and was teaching under a provisional contract, and honestly, that may have been part of the difficulty. After all,  I had not completed any student teaching. I had jumped right into full-time teaching because the school had had an urgent need to get the position filled.

As a result, that Monday morning made me fear that my foray into education was, at the least, a huge mistake.

Now, six years later, I teach in the same classroom, albeit a slightly different subject—from reading to language arts, specifically writing. My students better understand the priorities I place on handwriting, presentation, and a degree of professionalism in their work. We are learning together about ourselves, history, literature, current events and then writing about those in various ways.

Yes, they still moan and groan when I pass out their weekly written homework assignment. And slightly more than half turn in those assignments on time. But they are learning. Their ability to convey their thoughts on paper slowly, ever so slowly, improves with each assignment.

I also take heart in knowing that several former students tell me they now appreciate that I gave them those assignments because producing a solid essay on a weekly basis built self-confidence in their writing skills, developed their writer’s voice, and helped them conquer the fear of filling up a blank page.

On that Monday morning during my first year, my students just didn’t know me well enough. Relationships, credibility, confidence, and respect all develop slowly over time. So while it does take time to organize and plan instruction to teach the learning standards, it takes more time to establish trust with your students.

Today, I’m confident my students trust me. They know I’m interested in their interpretations. They know I value their ideas. They know I believe they are capable of discussing complicated concepts, of thinking through those concepts and figuring out how to put those concepts into written pieces. They also know I give them real opportunities to be published; in fact, many of them have already been published. Some of them even win contests. Above all, they know I would never call them stupid.