Saturday, March 9, 2013

Be The Change

I have been thinking about this post for about a week and a half now. A little over a week ago, our school participated in a three day event called Challenge Day. Going into it, a majority of the student body (and some of the teachers) were very skeptical about this program. We had very little idea of what it entailed. We did know that it involved sharing, crying, and hugging. That was about it. Over the past couple of years, I've become increasingly concerned about the culture in our school. Students have become increasingly disengaged and disrespectful to their teachers and even more so toward each other. Challenge Day came at a time where it seemed like each day brought stories of more fights and more bullying. As far as I was concerned, Challenge Day was well worth a shot.

I'll be the first to admit that in spite of my full support of Challenge Day going in, I was more than a little apprehensive about participating myself. Over the past five years, I have cultivated a certain persona in the classroom. I had developed a reputation as being somewhat gruff. I am direct and do not show much emotion around anyone but my wife and children, and even then, I tend to be somewhat guarded. That has not always been the case. I remember being a very affectionate and tender-hearted child. Even in high school, I was regarded as a "nice guy". My military experience hardened me quite a bit, as is usually the case. I had a number of experiences in which it was a matter of survival to suppress my emotions and function in a rather cold, rational way. Once I entered the classroom, that part of me became rather cemented. I have always cared about my students, which may come as a surprise to some of them, and that is something I deeply regret. I hate the idea that anyone has sat in my classroom and thought I didn't care about them. The truth is that I don't understand how someone could do the job of a teacher without caring about students, but I know that some teachers don't. I like to think that we don't really have any of those in our building.

Aside from my military experience, the process of becoming a teacher also contributed to the persona I had adopted. Throughout my teacher training, we were repeatedly warned against becoming too close to students and especially against showing any affection or making physical contact with students. This was especially true for male teacher candidates and even more so for male teacher candidates looking to become high school teachers. There is such a fear of sexual misconduct that we had it hammered into our heads that it was best to just keep our distance from students. As a result, in my first five years as a teacher, I had only hugged a few students with whom I had a particularly strong connection. Those rare embraces tended to be with my homeroom students upon their graduation. As I had been trained, I showed, my students I cared by expecting much of them and offering to help them with their studies whenever possible.

Challenge Day showed me the error of my ways. Really it showed me the error of our ways as an educational system. For many of our students, simply wanting the best for them doesn't register as caring. These kids lack strong support systems, and our expectations just seem like another source of oppression for them. They need to really know that we really care. I feel like I was able to finally show that to my students during my day of participation in the gym. I lowered my waterline and let the students in my "family" group see the real me. I allowed them to see me cry. I shared with them my greatest fears as a father, and I listened to them share their struggles and heartaches. Over the course of several hours, we learned what it really means to show someone you care. You listen to them and you offer them a hug. It was a transformational experience for many of us. I had students come up and hug me, and I could tell they didn't want to let go. Words can't express what that felt like.

During the "cross the line" activity, my heart broke for students as they had to repeatedly cross the line indicating that whatever statement being made applied to them. Students who have lost loved ones to drugs, alcohol, violence, incarceration, divorce continued to cross the line, and I could see the physical toll it took on them as all of those experiences impacted them all over again. I saw students who never talk to each other holding each other up as they realized just how much they had in common, and I saw students who had not experienced that pain show their support by holding up the sign for "I love you". The whole scene was almost spiritual. I will never forget seeing two particular students that I have had in class for a couple of years crossing the line together time after time. Both of them were in tears, and I think that if not for the other, they wouldn't have been able to go on. I felt horrible for having known both of them for so long without actually knowing them. When I had the chance, I apologized to both of them for never taking the time to hear what they have been through. Then we hugged, and I felt like a teacher. Before that, I didn't realize that I was missing that part of my job.

Since Challenge Day, I have had several students say that I have changed. They have said that they can tell I care about them now. By putting up those barriers that we've been told we have to put up, we have deprived ourselves and our students of one of the only things we have to offer in a world that is becoming more and more virtual: human contact. There are people out there making the case that school can all be done online, and that teachers are becoming obsolete. Kahn Academy has provided a breakthrough in online delivery of content, but Kahn Academy cannot see a kid in the hallway who has been crying and offer them a hug and an opportunity to talk about what is going on their life. If we don't start doing more of that, we will lose the reason most of us became teachers to begin with.

I know that things will not change overnight. My students know me for who I have been, and it will take time for them to see the man I want to be going forward, but I hope that they do see it, and I hope that I will never again have a student sit in my class thinking that I do not care about them.

I see you.
I got you.
I love you.
Be the change.