It is not unusual for Teacher Appreciation Week to coincide with our last week of school here because we start in early August, so it’s also not unusual for it to be a hectic time. Of course, those who know me know my life is pretty hectic any time. This week, however, set a new standard.
The lessons sandwiched between two family emergencies and my students’ final exams taught me some things that will forever make me a better teacher.
The family emergencies were the context for what happened at school, and that’s something I don’t think people outside school remember often enough: many (if not most) teachers are also parents. Both events involved my grandchildren. The first was the three-month premature arrival of grandbaby #10, Ayanna. Her parents are both deaf, and I was their designated driver and translator. I’ll skip all the harrowing and amazing details, but I kept noticing how our quest was punctuated by the difficulty in communication. There is no certified sign language interpreter in at least a 200 mile radius, and I only sign well enough to converse among family. At each step along the way, I understood everything the medical personnel were saying, and the reasons behind what they were doing. My daughter-in-law did not; she was terrified, which made the whole process more difficult for everyone. Although all turned out well (baby and mama are doing fine), it could very have been disastrous and could have been so much better.
I found myself wondering as I looked at my students’ final presentations and exams, how many times had they not understood what I was saying or trying to do in the classroom? How many questions they had not asked, or I had been too busy to hear? How many times a day might that type of miscommunication be happening in other classrooms, or in the financial aid office, or in the admissions process, or when they were trying to get out of high school? I’d like to think that my instructions and explanations are perfectly clear, and that any misunderstanding is the students’ fault (didn’t pay attention, didn’t work hard enough, weren’t properly prepared, yada, yada, yada). But as I search my teacher soul, I remember the missed opportunities, the confused looks, and the forehead-slapping realizations after-class of what I could have said.
By the end of Appreciation week, exhaustion was gaining, but as always, I was buoyed by the graduation ceremony. Seeing the students, many of them first-generation college students who have struggled so hard, finally reach this important point in their lives brings tremendous joy. I hugged Marja, the single mother of two, who had worked a string of minimum wage jobs until her youngest finished high school; then came back to school herself. I fist-bumped Chadrick, an amazing writer, who had vacillated all year between school or gang-banging. I cheered Hernando, the war veteran, who had overcome physical and mental pain to earn a coveted internship usually reserved for university students.
Just as I left the celebration of my students’ success, I received news that our family may not be celebrating the long-anticipated graduation of my oldest grandson from high school. He has failed one of the four high school exit exams required in Mississippi public schools—by one point. He had already taken the test multiple times over a period of two years, after he passed the course on which the test was based with above average grades. His teacher had an excellent track-record of preparing students for the tests. His parents had gotten him private tutoring; he had participated in the after-school and Saturday programs sponsored by his school. Yet, he and over twenty of his classmates—almost a third of the senior class—had failed to meet the state cut score.
My daughter was livid. “How can they do this?! How can they take everything he’s done away from him over ONE test?!”
What are the political and educational systems telling my grandson what they think of him not just as a student, but as a person? Will he want to continue trying to take the test after all his classmates have graduated and moved on, or will he just give up on education and hit the streets like so many of his peers?
After the phone call with my daughter, I returned to my students’ evaluations of my Freshman Comp II course. One student had scrawled only one sentence in large print on the paper: “In my opinion, you could make the things you explain simpler to understand.”