Mar 8, 2010

Teachers, Dogs, and the Art of Love in the Classroom

Goodteachers know kids’ hearts.

    They will not tell you this fact, but good teachers are not in the business of disseminating information. That’s for reading. Another good exercise, for sure, but the classroom is not a time to silently read a book. Teaching is about a conversation. It is a conversation between the one and the many, I suppose. Teaching is an understanding of the hearts of one’s students. A good teacher loves her students; he cares for their education. A good teacher does not give her student knowledge. No. The student gives herself knowledge, in self-blessing. The common precept of teachers I cannot abide is: teachers impart knowledge. While this is true; I can teach adverbs. I can teach the heroic archetype or give dates of the Second World War, but I am not truly teaching if I cannot connect on an emotional level. In the classroom, I am on par with existence, when I sense my students are with me on the journey. If I sense I have lost them in any shape or form, my weakness emerges and I become frustrated. I stop cold in the moment of teaching and try to change the course of the tide. I may ask, “Ok. How do we get back on track? Where did I lose you? Maria, why are you playing with Sam’s hair? Stop that. Please. Ok. Let’s continue.”

    Good teachers realize teaching is a dirty business. Teaching involves others’ hearts. I have come to believe firmly a child will not engage in the classroom if he or she feels the teacher is not on her side. I know this because I have often taught the best lesson, in content, but noticed one kid, disengaged - and I wonder why he or she is not engaged, and I realize why, in an instant, we failed, somehow, to engage them. Me. The school. The other students. Something went awry. My first semester of teaching I tried to conduct a group work project with my Junior class. It was failed from the start. I had not prepared. Good teachers prepare. I have learned this too. I had haphazardly put together a lesson hoping “they” would act in turn with enthusiasm, but it was my own enthusiasm I lacked that I expected them to perform. The class became chaotic. Kids were all over the classroom. They had no idea what they were supposed to be doing. I was frustrated. “Shut up!” At the moment I yelled “shut up” Ellen had walked in. She was my supervisor at the time. She had heard my outright cry in the hall and had come to my rescue. She got the class in order; got them on track, miraculously, and later told, “never tell your class to shut up, Greig.” So, after that day, I have tried to not tell my class to shut-up.

    Good teachers realize teaching is all about emotion not logic. I realized early on my students are experts at reading their teacher's emotions. Kids are sensitive to how others are. More than what others say. Kids, or people in general, will turn you off not by what you say, but how you present yourself. I am not talking about cleanliness, or even decorum of dress; I am talking about what your body says.

    My first year of teaching felt like a failure. I had recently completed my Master's in English and was ready to teach World Literature at the seminary college; but, I left the seminary, needed to find a job, and landed a position as an English instructor at a private Catholic High School. I will finish my second year as a teacher this May. My first class was a bunch of rowdy freshman, similar to the group I have now. My first semester teaching was a disaster for me, personally, because I really had no idea what I was doing. I had come from an experience of education that expected self-starters; I had completed high school at a distant time in my past and was not emotionally prepared to repeat the experience. I was light years away, at least intellectually, from the trope of compulsory education. Scenes from Welcome to the Dollhouse, once funny, now became frighteningly real; I had been there, done that; battled Dawn Wiener and won; I wasn't fully prepared for the onslaught of students, piled up in a room, me, ready to engage them in learning. I think I taught the Odyssey first thing my first year. It was pretty bad. I would ask a question about the definition of an epic hero. Silence. Then awkward silence. Then, "Can I use the bathroom?" which de-evolved soon into a huge battle between me trying to stay on track and the students slinking back into questions concerning their unsharpened pencil. There must be a better way, I thought. I mean, I know my students cannot be this devoid of enthusiasm and drive. It must be the system. Something is wrong. I know many of them have a creative spark. I have to find a way to tap into what drives the majority of them. One day, teaching adverbs, I scanned the classroom; it dawned on me what I was missing in my instruction. I did not really show I cared for my students. I think, deep down, they wanted me to show I care. I think I had written on my face, "I don't want to be here." It was pretty obvious. One thing I have learned teaching so far, is what you want your students to learn is often not what they end up learning. It is a fine balance between teaching the meaning of tone in poetry, to understanding human behavior.
    I taught a boy; we'll name him Jim. He sat in the front row. He was one of the few whom I had won over to my side; he took diligent notes; he asked good questions and he didn't antagonize me during classroom instruction. He stands out in my memory, though, not because he was a congenial kid in class, but his after-school project to convince me to buy a dog is a story I will never forget. He wrote me an email in December, close to the close of the Spring term. I was especially frustrated. I had slogged through the first semester feeling I had accomplished nothing. The kids were not understanding anything I had taught them. One day the entire class protested my instruction. Twenty of them had had their hands raised, even before I could pick up my EXPO marker to take notes. "Mr. Roselli, we have something to say to you." The "something we have to say to you" was an indictment by the students by the class on how awful my classroom protocol was. It was then that I realized I had failed them as a teacher and I needed to do something drastic to win them back. Jim was a sensitive kid in the class, and during the classroom indictment did not offer his opinion of me. But, during the weekend his email was revealing.

Dear Mr. Rosselli,

i know you must be stressed. I feel stressed sometimes too, especially because of all the homework you give. i think it would be best for all of us if you were less stressed my mom and I visited the humane society the other day and we saw the cutest dog ever. I think you need a dog to love you and you can love back. I think if you had a dog you would be less stressed and we wouldn't feel so stressed neither.

Sincerely your student,


    I read the letter twice. Maybe three times. I thought it was a little weird that a kid wanted me to have a dog. But then I thought about it some more. The kid had tapped into something that I was unable to understand. He realized how emotionally distressed I had become and was willing to meet me in a quasi-mature way: offer me a pet if I would slacken a bit on the homework. Albeit it the pact was manipulative; I had to laugh at his subtle rhetoric, but in the end the email touched me. It was the first time in my career as a high school teacher that I had felt an emotional response from a student.
    On Monday I did not mention the email to Jim during class. I taught my normal lesson: vocabulary, a writing exercise on a favorite school time activity, and a reading from the text book. At the end of the period Jim gathered his books like he normally did and exited the class. No mention of the email. It was as if he had never written it. I had half-expected he would have mentioned to me the prospect of the dog. Maybe I had imagined the email; confused it with something else. I went back to my computer terminal. Sure enough. There was the dog email. The next day, he came into class a little earlier than usual.
"Jim. Did you write me an email about getting a dog?"
"Yeah. My mom and I saw one at the Humane Society. You should get a dog."
    I laughed. It freaked me out that the kid had read my emotions so well in classroom. I felt exposed. He could tell I was not very comfortable in the classroom; he had sensed my fear, my insecurity, and felt he should try to help me out. The moment stood out for me, because at the time, I had begun to resent my students. I had viewed them as nasty creatures who were only out for number one, themselves. Jim's letter was about himself too - he wanted me to lessen on the homework, but I realized it was absolute of me to regard my classroom full of kids as totally selfish.

    A few months went by and the dog was never mentioned. I had been getting ready for the Spring performance of Lost in Yonkers. I had let my class performance slack, and I was losing hold of reality. Jim comes to me one day after class. "Mr. Roselli. My dad won't let me keep my dog at his house this weekend. Can you take care of him for me?" I couldn't believe it. The dog again. "Jim, I can't take care of your dog. I have a small apartment. My landlord won't let me." I could tell by his face he was disappointed. I think he had it in his heart I would take care of his dog. Maybe apart of him was like his dog: in need of care. I realized how many of these kids were in need of care. It is easy to tell the kids who get love from home: you know the kind, healthy love. They don't demand of my time as much. But the broken ones are different. They are like Jim and his dog. They need someone to love them.

    I never did take care of Jim's dog nor did I take his advice to get myself a dog. But, I did remember his words: "you need someone to love you." I think Jim meant the word in the truest sense: a sense we are often apt to fail. Love in the classroom looks like this: the teacher is happy; his students are on par with existence. There is a pathway between lesson and kids' brains. Something is percolating in the coffee maker of the mind. Even in my worse moments in the classroom, and I have had many, and my students have had worse moments too (kids can say cruel things); it is sufficient to believe that if you can engage a classroom for ten minutes on a topic and not get distracted, then you know you have won them over. Even if the rest of the class is chaos, the beauty of ten minutes of engagement is worth the effort. Now, I just wish I did not have to make lesson plans for those engagements. Or grade tests. Then, I would be happy.