When I first became a career teacher, as opposed to teaching with nonprofits part-time, I was moving from a job as an organizer, where I connected with people through their interests and built friendships with students, to a position where I felt I had to clearly draw the lines – I am a teacher, not a friend. I connected with students through their work, and through their career and college aspirations, but not through knowing their families, their hobbies, their daily lives. Partly, this was because, as a new teacher in a community plagued with giving excuses, I felt I had to separate myself from the very real troubles of their lives – day care, court dates, medical issues, anger issues – in order to instill discipline so that learning could happen. Also, I wanted them to learn what it would be like in the world after high school, without loving, understanding, coddling teachers, counselors, parents. Even in their part-time jobs, they often sabatoged themselves, expecting their supervisors to extend the kind of understanding, leniency, and receptiveness to their personal problems that they experienced at home and in the school systems. And, finally, I separated myself from their personal lives because I didn’t believe I could manage both roles, as a counselor and as a teacher.
Which is not to say that I didn’t connect with them. When an issue arose, with day care or housing, we found the appropriate staff person who could assist them with resources. I started reading circles around books they chose and learn about their lives through the connections they talked about in their groups. To stop quieter, lonely students from skipping, I engineered work groups with students I thought would eventually be friends. The statistics survey projects gave me an insight into their interests. I spent time with them during lunch breaks working on their portfolios, letters and essays for college – but always, the connection was around their work and their academic goals.
This means, of course, that I knew less about them personally than other teachers, but I also thought it provided some fairness – no one was getting slack because their uncle had recently died, or because they’d had an abortion, or because they were battling substance abuse. And this, I thought, is the reality of life.
Now, in China, where drug abuse, teen pregnancy, homelessness is not a problem for my students, I feel left out when I don’t know as much about a student’s life as the other teachers. In addition, our structured mathematics curriculum doesn’t really provide time for writing personal essays or giving speeches that helps me to learn about them. Even in computer class, students can create power points about their hobbies, but the methods of doing algebra usually add little insight into someone’s past.
Here at the college, we focus on English language acquisition first and foremost – the other subjects are, in a way, a means to this end. English language scores are their ticket into an Australian or US university, not their math scores or business sense. So, whereas in Boston we were taught to honor their “L1”, or first language, here, we have strict rules – only English in class, no Chinese. To enforce this rule, many teachers have adopted a policy of assigning the entire class an essay when we hear Chinese, with the number of words increasing with each spotting. I hate giving out punishment, I’m the queen of threats, but today, I collected my first “Speak English” essay. I asked them to write about themselves (the word count reached 40 words), and this, I’m realizing, may be my ticket into learning more about these students, all without taking up class time. Quite a neat trick. Feel free to steal it, math teachers out there.