Sunday, October 19, 2008

Playing Teacher at Parent-Teacher Conferences

I have become very good at faking it. Besides classroom management and basic content knowledge, much of teaching is learning to role play. By "role play" I mean acting in the way you think a teacher should act. This includes a gambit of gestures and phrases that I have harvested over the years by being a student. Such tricks include: pausing mid sentence to invoke a controlling silence, pinching the skin between your eyes and sighing to demonstrate disappointment/frustration, and counting out loud to expedite readiness ("Don't count, Eunice, I hate it when you count!"). The more time I spend in the classroom, the more expert I become in these teacher tricks.

But this week I was faced with the big beast, which sucked out all of the authentic teacherness I could generate: Parent-Teacher conferences. Let's face it, high school kids are easily manipulated. Right now, many of them think that I am an albino Jewish male from the Dominican Republic who speaks passable Spanish and knows Usher. Only one of those things is true, of course, my friendship with hip-hop star Usher (though you could make a case for me the albino thing). Parents, however, are more discerning their their students, so convincing them that I was a real-life, know-what-I'm-doing, I--have-appliqué-sweatshirts-that-celebrate-my-authentic-teacherness-complete-with-felt-apples-and-funny-buttons teacher would be difficult to do.

So I put up science posters in the room, placed a bag of mini snickers in a petri dish, and wore a professorial blazer (minus the elbow patches). A slow, but steady stream of single moms and older siblings came into the classroom, and my attention began to change from my own feelings of inexperience, to a more complete view of my students and their lives.

I have always known that my students had it rough--that is mostly why I applied to Teach For America--but it didn't really come together until I sat down with some of my students' parents. Parents struggle to raise good kids no matter where they are, but in the Bronx it is even tougher. Gang members aren't some invisible group of black sheep--they are everyday students in your classroom. They want protection from empty troubled homes, and loneliness. Violence is not a video game warning--it is evidence worn on puffy faces as marks of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Many of my students are failing, but most of them are coming to class, and even if all they get is a little refuge from the outside by half-listening to some white guy talk about cell division, than something good is happening.

But, really, something much greater is happening. In talking to students and their parents, I realized that all of them are trying to make it. Parents want their children to do well and to behave, and most students don't want to disapoint, but something gets lost-they become distracted or discouraged. Most parents are struggling to make it on their own--they were mostly single moms working multiple jobs and raising teenagers who are only half their age. Multiple times I found myself saying, "These parents are so unlike my parents!" But they ARE like my parents. They love their children and are doing everything they know how to make a tough life a little more livable.

I want so much for their children to make it--to really make it, not just to pass my class. It is so challenging to try to be a fragment of positive inertia for developing students, and yet so sweet to try! They need positive, yet honest encouragement. And that, you can't fake. I'm learning to do that, and I am learning to love it.


Ryan and Erin said...

Jon, you are a great teacher. I had a great time reading some of your experiences and thoughts. You are doing a great thing.
But, I am still waiting for a story about...what was it?...a dance off in your classroom?

Stanton & Rubi Jones said...

i love this post and really respect what you're doing.

Jessica said...

It is crazy to realize you ARE the parents. They are no longer your parents' age, but they are your age. (Kind of like when the missionaries start looking young.)