I awoke early on my first day, nervous but excited. After driving an hour through the beautiful rural North Carolina landscape dotted with countless tobacco fields and dilapidated old barns, I walked into one of the most intimidating situations I’ve ever been in. I was a fresh-faced, twenty-three year old white woman, determined to do something meaningful with my life. I was going to do more than strive for money and success. I was going to inspire young people.
I was going to teach high school mathematics.
To say that my students were unimpressed with their new teacher would be an understatement. I tried to make up for my inexperience by having loads of enthusiasm for my subject, but after several weeks of begging students to quiet down and give me their attention, I was starting to regret my decision. I have countless stories from that first year and almost all of them involve some variation of a student misbehaving in a small way, me asking him or her to stop, and the situation escalating to a full blown confrontation. I couldn’t maintain control of my classroom and the students knew it.
Twelve years later, I sit alone in my living room and watch the video of the young girl from Spring Valley High in Columbia, SC, being pulled out of her desk by a school police officer. I watch it over and over and over. I can’t get the image out of my mind. I don’t know what to say. It’s brutal. It’s inhuman. It’s indefensible.
As a high school teacher, I spend a ton of time with teenagers. I have the privilege of seeing them at their best and at their worst. I see the kid with ADHD who can barely sit still after lunch and I see the girl who just had a fight with her best friend. Teenagers are complex—they can be happy, frustrated, bored, sad, lonely, hyper, angry, insecure, and on and on. It’s no wonder that tempers flare at times, but what we can never forget is that they are children. They may look fully-grown, and heaven knows many of them think they are, but they are not.
Teaching is a messy business. Contrary to what most people think, teaching isn’t really about the content. It’s not about equations, or verbs, or parts of a cell. Teaching, or better yet, learning is about the exchange that happens between teacher and student. In order for that exchange to happen, there needs to be a relationship between teacher and student. Each needs to trust and respect the other. I didn’t understand that my first year (or three) and was constantly surprised at the behavior of my students. I expected them to sit quietly in their seats, obediently raise their hand when they had a question, and generally play the role of model students. Instead, my students were rowdy, unprepared for class, and wholly uninterested in algebra and geometry.
Around year four of my career, something clicked for me. I realized that my job—teaching mathematics to a room full of teenagers—isn’t actually about me. It isn’t about my wonderful lesson plans or my overall pass rate for end-of-course tests. Instead, my job is actually about my students. These incredibly complex teenagers who I spend so many of my waking hours with, are souls that have infinite value. They are not actors playing a scripted part, but instead are individuals with fears and dreams, insecurities and interests. They come into my classroom with a backstory that inevitably effects how they perceive and understand what happens inside that classroom. It is a privilege and a joy to cultivate a relationship with them that will allow us to go about the business of learning algebra and geometry.
I don’t know everything that happened in that classroom at Spring Valley High. There will no doubt be much speculation over the days and weeks to come about what the young girl did or didn’t do, what the teacher should have done, etc. I do know that there have been moments in my own teaching career that I would like a chance to do over. There have been times, while feeling frustrated, angry, and disrespected by a student, that I allowed my own response to escalate a situation. I know there was a better way to handle those moments and, thankfully, I have learned from those experiences. I hope and pray that all of us who work in education will remember that the students we stand in front of day in and day out are someone’s sons and daughters. They deserve our very best. Surely we can treat them with the respect and dignity we would want for our own children.