Based in Long Beach, California, "Teach Me Mr. West" is a blog by Jason West. His posts explore the rewards and challenges of being a highly effective 21st century educator.

The Abhorrent Teacher Is Me

The Abhorrent Teacher Is Me

I've been lucky in my career to have been around and worked with some truly amazing teachers.

But that’s not what this post is really about.

I have been around some absolutely abhorrent people who merely dress up as teachers. I’ve heard/suffered through comments from so-called colleagues like, “these kids just can’t learn” and “if I’m nice to them, they won’t know how to live in the real world, where people aren’t nice” and “my classroom doesn’t really have problems…it’s full of Shawn’s, not DeShawn’s, if you know what I mean.”

But that’s not what this post is really about.

I pride myself on being a progressive person (not just politically, but as an educator, too). I believe firmly in abolishing punitive grading practices, I believe firmly in giving students a voice and a choice in their education, and I believe firmly that homework is (generally) a discriminatory practice against students of poverty (because, for example, how can you be expected to do homework if you don’t have a home?). But that’s not what this post is really about, either (by the way, if you don’t think I’m going to give each of these beliefs their own long-winded blog post, then you clearly haven’t been reading my blog for very long…in which case I say, welcome! Let me catch you up on what you’ve missed: I give my in-depth thoughts on education while going on far too many tangents—being succinct is a work in progress for me. That’s really it! Hope you enjoy the blog!).

I’m sharing all of this because I want to give you the context needed to understand what this post IS really about: the moment I realized I wasn't the teacher I wanted to be, but rather, I was the abhorrent teacher I vowed never to be.

I wasn’t prepared for this revelation either. I was both shocked and embarrassed (kind of like when you get home from a party—after you’ve mingled for hours with dozens of people—and you see a big glob of green food between your teeth and you think, “Why didn’t anyone tell me?? Also, I didn’t eat anything green today, so…what the hell??”).

I have this student—let's call him Christian, for the sake of his privacy. Christian is a sweet kid. He’s smart, charming, polite, handsome, athletic…basically a dream kid. But Christian had slowly started to miss school. A day here, two days there, another day here, a week there, etc. Whenever I saw him (in passing) in the hallway, I‘d ask him where he’d been, and he’d politely reply, “I’m sorry I missed class. When can I come and make up my work?” I’d tell him to come in at lunch, and he would scuttle off to his next class. Then, when lunchtime came around, he was usually a no-show. When I’d later ask him about why he skipped lunch, he’d just politely say, “I forgot. I'm sorry.

On one day when Christian was absent, I asked his friends (new friends he’d made while in my class), to help me understand what was going on with him. They said, “We’re not sure…he once asked us how many times he could miss class before the school called home. And he always misses class when we have a quiz or a test or a discussion.” I hadn’t noticed that detail until the kids pointed it out (another point of embarrassment).

So I did the mental math: I had a charming, smart, athletic, handsome kid…who slowly stopped coming to class and didn’t want his mom to find out…he inconsistently made up his work and somehow would be in school whenever his team had a game (and he kept his grades juuuust high enough to remain on the team).

Oh, I get it,” I thought, “Christian simply doesn’t care about his academics and he’s savvy enough to have gotten away with it up until this point.”

I was determined to fix this problem. One of the best ways to address issues with a high school athlete is to reach out to their coach. Seriously, coaches are great. They are teachers, father figures, life coaches, sports coaches…they wear many hats and aren’t appreciated enough for what they offer outside the lines of their respective sports. Having a coach available at your school is like having a handyman in your family—you get waaay more out of the relationship than they do. Anyway, I reached out to Christian’s coach and gave him my perspective: Christian is a great kid who doesn’t come to class and, even though he's a bit of a stud on your team, I think he’s playing the system and I just wanted you to know about it, coach.

I probably said all of this with a level of smugness that, upon reflection, adds to my embarrassment and shame.

About an hour later (during my conference period) the coach and Christian were in my classroom, telling me why Christian had been missing so much class. He was homeless. Some days, he slept close to the school. On other days, he had travelled up to 40 miles just to get back on campus. I was stunned, shocked, disappointed…in a society/system that would put a kid in this situation and in the level of charm and intelligence that Christian held in the face of his circumstances. But mostly…mostly I was disappointed in myself. As soon as the word “homeless” escaped the coach’s lips all of the pieces, all of the clues, had suddenly connected. I felt like the detective at the end of  “The Usual Suspects” who just realized that Kaiser Söze had been in his office the whole time (spoiler alert for all the readers who have been waiting OVER TWENTY YEARS TO SEE AN ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING MOVIE).

It all made sense…it was so, SO obvious…and I completely missed it.

Not only did I miss it, but I had actually judged this kid. I said things to myself like, “He just doesn’t want to learn” and wondered, “if he’s playing the system now, what’s he going to be like in five or ten years?

Every year I try to identify and set goals for my needed areas of growth as an educator. I think it’s safe to say that my goal this year is to keep my eyes, ears, and my heart open to what my students are showing and telling (and not telling) me. While I’m grateful that it’s only December and I have another six months to rectify my mistake, I feel like I’ve largely let this student down. I classified him and judged him based on systemic biases that have been engrained in our culture. Would I have passed the same judgment to a student who wasn’t an athlete? Who wasn’t as smart? Who wasn’t as handsome and charming? I honestly don’t know the answers to these questions. I tell my students all the time that it’s acceptable to not know something, but that it’s unacceptable to be okay with not knowing something.

It would be unacceptable for me to shrug this moment off and not learn and grow from it.

So that’s it (well, not really, but it’s all I’m willing to share at the moment). It’s been a tough week of processing and reconciling the person I am vs. the person I want to be. In the scope of my career, I don’t really believe I am one of those abhorrent teachers. However, if I don’t constantly ask questions, seek answers, or reflect on/admit to my mistakes, am I really any better?

Thank you to "Christian" for giving me consent to share his story on my blog.

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