I have a long standing affinity for and good relationships with smart alleck-ey male students. If you know me, you know why I have that affinity. Mostly it’s because I was/am far worse than any of them could hope to be. I had a lot of really brilliant male friends growing up. Few of them made it out and those that did are not as successful as their female counterparts. I took a lot of gruff from my colleagues last year for being concerned about the boys in my care. Considering that boys are far less likely to graduate from high school and college (poor boys-this applies to the working classes only) and far more likely to end up in a desert or a jail cell, I felt it was a completely valid concern.
We need more male teachers, sure, but we also as female teachers need to think about what we bring into the classroom and how that affects our students and our boys (we ALL need to think about what we bring into the classroom always). If you don’t have a good relationship with men chances are fairly decent you will bring those biases and issues into the classroom, and I’ve seen it happen over and over again.
One of the smartest men I have ever known was drinking by the time we were 5th graders. He was also failing every class. He had already been labeled as a problem, and I met him in my reading group. Considering his test schools and in class performance, I am not sure why no one said, “hey this kid is brilliant, maybe he’s bored?” His pool game is ridiculous because he can calculate the angles in his head and has been able to do so, as far as I know, since we were 14. The fact that someone can look at an 8 year old (or even a 5 year old, I’ve seen this happen to really young kids) and decide that they are “bad” and stick them with that label is sort of beyond me. But it happens, with appalling frequency. I am always shocked when a kid tells me that I am the first teacher that really believed in them because I teach high school. So by my calculation, assuming I am teaching freshmen a minimum of 28 adults prior to me really dropped the ball. By the time they get to me they already have an attitude and I can’t say I blame them; I had an attitude at their age too. I’ve said this once already, but I always assume that there is a valid reason for student behavior. I’ve never been proven wrong on that count and I doubt I will be. My group of GATE students at Don Julio Junior High was reportedly the most difficult and most intelligent group several of my teachers have ever seen. We also had the most problems and were incredibly high risk (Yes, me too. Perhaps especially me). I watched as each of those kids drowned. For a huge percentage of them they were done before we even walked into the doors of junior high. Another percentage was done before freshman year. We were difficult because we had rough home lives and were intensely aware of the fact that we were getting an unfair shot. Why participate in a system and structure that had alienated us and that we didn’t stand to benefit from?
For everything I have gone through, nothing was more painful that watching the squandered brilliance of my friends as they headed down darker and darker roads. Part of me lives with profound guilt over the fact that I can’t do anything about it. I realized I couldn’t save them, so I started saving the kids who looked, talked and acted like them. I’ve wanted to be that kind of teacher. The kind of teacher where smart alleck and obnoxious kids would excel. The kind of teacher where artsy kids would have a protected space in the confines of my walls. The kind of teacher that loved kids unconditionally and got up every morning prepared to give them a new chance, a new start, because I firmly believe everyday that they have a chance to turn it around, and it’s my job to be patient and waiting and open for the day when they do.
We waste our brightest poor men, and then wonder how they end up in jail. We tell them they can’t be successful in school and then are confused when they stop participating in school and go out into the world where they can find something to be successful at. We tell them they are “bad” and then are confused when they do exactly what we said they would. For me, it’s really simple. All of my students are automatically innocent until proven otherwise. All of my students are good even when they can’t show that in the way I would like. All of my students can redeem themselves at any point on any day.
When you talk to working class kids who got out, there is always this origin story about there being a teacher that loved them and believed in them. I am no different; my story starts with my 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Kroes. Mr. Kroes loved me at my worst, held me to a high standard when I didn’t believe I could meet it, and protected and fought for my particular brand of intelligence. This chain continued. I’ve always found a teacher prepared to go to war for me. The only way for me to repay that is to be prepared to go to war for my kids. My job is to protect and reach all kids.
Boys in working class areas are drowning. They are fighting a battle they shouldn’t have to fight and that they can’t win on their own. The gap is huge and frankly makes my social life and teaching that much harder. I want more male teachers in the classroom, but we have to get them through high school and college first.
I want each of my kids to know this simple truth: I will love them not matter what. I will have faith in them, always.