A professional development opportunity I’ve taken advantage of this year has been a reading/discussion group of teachers in our building covering Todd Whitaker’s What Great Teachers Do Differently. (If that name sounds familiar, you might be a regular reader: see here and here.) It’s been very interesting to hear other teachers’ opinions on Whitaker’s 14 points, and a lot of discussion about our own school and how to make these things work has happened, mostly in a productive manner.

One subject that has come up – unsurprisingly – is the teachers’ lounge. (Which has also been a topic of discussion around Docere.) For almost every school, the lounge seems to be one of those institutions that teachers cling to despite the fact that it almost always propagates the worst attitudes that we could possibly have. Whitaker even mentions that the most common reply he receives from teachers when he asks what advice they would give to student teachers about the teachers’ lounge is “Stay out!” – which is sad, since there probably is a degree to which it might be cathartic for us to share our struggles and triumphs with other people who are in the same boat.

Part of Whitaker’s response to this trend is to suggest that the teacher is the filter. Ultimately, what we say or pass on about anyone – student, teacher, parent, or otherwise – can be filtered out to prevent others from getting preconceived notions about the subject of conversation. We can choose to be negative and complain or gripe about people and conditions, or we can be positive and filter out all the crap to get to the positives. (And there is plenty to be negative about, with our state education system here in Illinois losing $1.3 billion for the next fiscal year.) That includes the teachers’ lounge.

Some of my colleagues aren’t that good at filtering, some even stating openly that they don’t care if they are negative (not in so many words, of course). And I admit – regrettably – that I sometimes ask for advice from some of these teachers: never in regards to personal conduct, of course, but in general.

One such teacher has attempted to help me with my seniors this year, who I have struggled with for nearly the whole year. Her advice was to try and stick out the year with them and accomplish as much as I can without worrying too much about getting them on board with me as a teacher because of their previous history with English teachers – a great one followed by a horrendously awful one – and the composition of the class. They’re bright enough, but as this teacher told me, “They’re just an immature bunch. They’re good kids…except for [student name redacted] – s/he’s a [expletive deleted].”

And this sentiment has not been one limited to this one teacher; several teachers have talked about the student, who happens to be a child of another faculty member. I’ve tried not to let that color my own relationship with the student, which has waxed and waned substantially over the course of the year. The dynamic is really too difficult to explain, but it’s been suggested to me that the student is on medication, and I can see a noticeable difference from the first and last periods of the day when s/he is in my classroom.

Things have been especially hit-and-miss this semester; one period might result in a mouthy remark (which I have tried to ignore) and another might involve a hyperactive giggle session. But eventually, things have started to regulate somewhat, and I’ve seen somewhat more productivity (or at least not as much open insubordination).

Since we started the research paper in senior English and I started cracking down on deadlines and getting work done (the whole paper is due in a little over a week), there have been even better results. What has really happened, in a large part, is that the relationship this student and I have has developed more into the guiding/helping role that is ultimately supposed to occur (or at least, that I would ideally like to happen). I found out that s/he has moved out of her parents’ house recently because of a request for an extension on work; I knew already that the student works at least part-time outside of school, so it’s clear that s/he has accepted some personal responsibility even now.

And today, the student asked me during our last hour class about assignments for the earlier class (senior English), and I clarified what was due and what s/he could do to prevent what would be – to be blunt – utter failure. The student gave me some work, and I tried to guide where I could. The exchange was fair, open, and comforting – for both of us, I think. Ultimately, I think we understood each other, and I saw the good kid in there that my colleagues apparently didn’t see – or were ignoring.

You see, I try to emphasize, both in class and outside, that I value every one of my students, that they are worthwhile and fundamentally good. It is a hard belief to remind myself of sometimes and certainly a difficult one to live by. I am reminded of this as I teach To Kill a Mockingbird to my sophomores, with Atticus Finch’s obstinate refrain of “walking in someone else’s shoes” that is almost frustratingly difficult to live by. It’s almost our second nature as people to form such petrified opinions of people based on past behaviors that we almost view them as our judgments, as their past behavior, and this dehumanizing trend is hard to overcome. (I should know.) It all goes back to what I once heard from educational consultant Topper Steinman: “Kids are who they are; they know what they know; they bring what they bring.”

So when I have a student that others have given up on, one that has shown horrid behavior and has set the expectation for more of the same rather than growth and improvement, and I can interact with them meaningfully as an rational – and intrinsically valuable – individual, I am happy to have proved the cynics wrong.

Might every day of my teaching career be living proof of the value of people!

“Kids are who they are; they know what they know; they bring what they bring.”