Despite the fact that we’re only in the second week of school, there has already been a fair amount of drama that has erupted at the small rural school I teach at, some including students of mine. A few days ago, the story everyone was talking about was about how two of my students (coincidentally, both in my 1st hour class) had gotten in a “fight” – one had hit the other in the eye, for reasons that I won’t disclose (although I will note that I could see both sides in the argument that was the catalyst for the altercation).
One of these students has had problems with attendance in the past, and she rather nonchalantly told another teacher that she found out she was pregnant. (I say nonchalant, but here’s how the teacher described the conversation: “How are you doing today?” “I’m pregnant.” With an awkward silence where the teacher didn’t quite know how to respond, presumably because you don’t want to say, ‘Oh, congratulations!’ because it might be seen as condoning an unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or because the student might not be favorable to this event. And I won’t even touch the idea of pooh-poohing it in front of the student, which has its own set of problems.)
The teacher was telling us this in the teachers’ lounge, which was probably appropriate enough since several of us have her in our classes and would benefit from knowing of her pregnancy in order to accommodate her special circumstance and to help her get through this year, which is her senior year. Well, at least, that’s what I thought when I heard this news.
Apparently not everyone in the teachers’ lounge during our lunch period felt so. One particular teacher commented, “Well, she should just quit now, because it’s going to be too hard for her.” (This teacher also happens to occupy the classroom next to mine.)
Being somewhat uncertain about voicing such a disagreement, despite the fact that it is somewhat a serious professional and pedagogical disagreement, I kept my mouth shut (somewhat like the last time). I did notice that no one jumped in to add their support to this opinion, but it was somewhat disconcerting that such a cynical and pessimistic opinion would come out in the teachers’ lounge – the place where teachers, some of the very people who are supposed to be ultimately concerned with helping students become better and more skilled people, congregate and share space and a meal together. Yes, we end up talking about some students in particular, but I think that the appropriate conversations have been ones trying to get an idea for how some teachers have dealt with certain behaviors and idiosyncrasies of these students. They have not, in my experience been ones suggesting that students drop out.
Do I even need to say this? I don’t ever want to be so cynical that I think I know when students will never succeed and should just settle for a life as a high school dropout, never having any ambitions to further achievement. I have another student who is already a parent and clearly behind in her work (she is taking two levels of English with me, certainly not because she likes me that much): should I suggest that she just give up and hope that she finds a steady fast food job or someone to take care of her? Should I suggest that she’s not capable of achieving what the other students who are not yet parents can? (And how hypocritical would I be, as someone who went all through college working full-time and managed to become a parent twice in that time? Why couldn’t I help be a model?)
We shouldn’t be lowering the bar so that students learn to expect that no one expects anything of them. When the work is hard, we should maintain reasonable expectations, pushing our students to meet them. We should try to build relationships with the students so that they feel an urgency in not disappointing us, not simply dismiss them without giving them the opportunity to succeed. (And clearly, if they fail, we should communicate that we still value them despite their failure.)
Part of why I like my school so much is the environment that our principal provides, which promotes community and setting expectations so that we can push students toward them, giving them whatever assistance they need. I can’t say that this one teacher’s attitude is a common thing in my school, but even if I can’t change the opinion of this one teacher, I can resist that impulse in myself. I can remind my students that they have worth, that they are valuable, and that they can succeed, even if there are obstacles in their way.