(I wrote this on an airplane as a blog to include. When looking through my files, I forgot to put this on the blog! Food for thought, if anything else.)
My sister is a second grade elementary school teacher . She received her bachelors in sociology and master’s at an online institution. Straight out of college, she has taught for over ten years and has more teaching experience than I have. I on the other hand, arrived at teaching after several years in science research. She has always taught elementary school, whereas I’ve taught high school and post secondary. The irony is that although our mother, my sister and myself have all been teachers, we have never had critical or productive conversations about teaching.
My sister has bragged a lot about her teaching experiences over the years I have know her. Her conversations would consist of: how you can tell the poor kids from the rich ones; the parents who care from those that do not; the Johnnies that would come to her class who, based on her infinite amount of wisdom, she knows will not have the intellect to be successful; how she can tell the difference right off the bat of whether or not her student is “problem child” or a struggler. She chose to teach at a school that was sponsored by the Bill Gates Foundation and located in an affluent neighborhood because all teachers could get free laptops. She received a class set of Leapster pads from mother for Christmas one year because it would keep her students busy so that they wouldn’t bother her. She hated teaching kindergarten because the little kids are so needy. They touch her too much with their grimy, germy hands. They always had sniffling, runny noses that made her sick. This is why she prefers teaching older kids.
Last Thanksgiving (2011) was the first time I actually really listened to what she was saying. My sister was complaining about her students’ parents. She didn’t like how they coddled their children too much – how their incessant phone calls and check ups on their kids’ progress bothered and annoyed her. “I don’t really care about their kid.” she would say rather authoritatively, repeatedly bragging about it in different ways over our Thanksgiving turkey.
I was so shocked at her words that I didn’t know how to respond. I was horrified, and repulsed. I said to myself, “She must be kidding.” with a feeling of both disbelief and anger. Anger, because I didn’t speak up about it for the entire time over the Thanksgiving dinner. Afterwards I thought, “The next time she says this, I should speak up. But what should I say?”
She did it again at brunch the next day – as if saying “I don’t care about my kids” was an accomplishment. Sister treated the statement like a badge of honor that she wore proudly. She said it so often and so strongly that everyone was silent – silently ashamed for her, I think. In my eyes, she was dehumanizing the very kids that she was responsible for teaching. Mother, a former teacher herself, averted her eyes, not speaking. Did she feel the same way? Was she disturbed as much by her daughter’s admonition as I was?
I was disgusted – nauseous even, because I felt at that moment, she symbolized everything that I was fighting against. How could you be a teacher and not care about your students?! My repulsion to her was so strong that I couldn’t stand being in the same room with her. I was angry. I wanted to yell. I wanted to rip her apart with my words and render her powerless. Killing rage is what bell hooks calls it – a silent, seething anger that, because she dehumanized her students, I wanted to dehumanize her. In my silent anger, I left the room and did not speak to her afterwards. She of course, was blissfully oblivious to this anger however.
So here I am, on my flight to my in-laws. I’ve had a year to think about my sister, and what I will do and say to her when she speaks about this blasphemy again to me. I want to tell her just how repugnant I view her as a teacher, and how despicable I find her teaching beliefs.
I want to ask her, “If you don’t care about your students, why do you teach? Do you teach because of the middle-class paycheck and summer vacations? Is it because of the shortened days, or the excellent benefits? Since you don’t care about your students, do you only prepare the minimum for them? Do you even prepare at all? Is it really true then, about what society says about us teachers? -That most of us choose teaching because it’s a job where we can be lazy?
If you don’t care about your students, if you really ARE doing this because you don’t want to work very hard, I can understand now why the government wants to take over the teaching profession and hold teachers accountable for student success. After all, if you don’t care for your students, who will? If most teachers are like you, I can see why people have a bad impression of teachers in general. She is the reason why teachers have such a poor reputation.
Telling her off would assuage my anger for the moment, and keep me from having it pent up inside. It would express what I really felt and thought about her. However what stops me, and why I hesitated from this approach was because I too am a teacher. I knew that to express myself this way would shut her off. She wouldn’t listen or understand. Instead, my sister would probably chalk me up to being some bleeding heart liberal that didn’t really understand how the world works.
Sister, you make my job as a teacher harder for me. You make it harder because unlike you, I care and love my students. Teaching to me is a big responsibility because I change lives when I teach. I change the world. I teach because I want all my students to realize their full potential, work towards it and exceed it. I teach because I believe and know that education is empowering and transformative to everyone, because I get to share the absolute joy my students feel when they discover that they can go beyond what they ever thought they were capable of. I teach because I care, and because I believe in my students. I teach because I know that at times, I am the only light in a student’s life and that I may be the first person to ever say to them, “You can do it” and actually believe it. I teach because I believe and I dream for my students until they find that belief, that inner strength and beauty to dream for themselves. You make my job as a teacher harder for me because you never believed.
Why do you teach?
If this is what I believe, that teaching is a responsibility, and that it is an opportunity for people to be self-actualized, then is that not my responsibility for HER too? If I am teacher, is self-actualization only reserved for my students? Or is this something, a movement in social justice, that I must take advantage of even outside the classroom?
So how do I speak up? How do I transform this killing rage into something enlightening? CAN I show her what she’s actually saying, and how it is perceived? Rancier talks about the teacher’s opportunities to show intelligence unto itself. Does the same work for showing ignorance unto itself? Is that my job? Who am I to tell her though, that my belief is any better (even though I feel it is) than hers? Does saying, “You are wrong and here’s the reasons why” justify my desire to teach her? Teaching and feeling the wherewithal to teach is an act of power that person you want to teach as the subject who is less than you, who needs to be “educated.” Is that my right and place to do so? Is this what teachers should do?
So in my head, I revisit the statement that has plagued me for almost a year, “I don’t care about my students.” Maybe, it’s not at all that I want to impose my ideas on her. I want to take out my rage on her. But, can we really impose our ideas on another, especially when it is uninvited? How much of that will be listened to? How much of that will be transformative?
I forgot my other responsibility as a teacher – to be a learner too. While we create opportunities for our students to see their own intelligence, we do so through learning about who our students are. We engage our students where they are by learning about who they are and what they need. Why? So that they can realize their thinking for themselves. When teachers take the position of learner – learning about our students, we open our minds to what they have to offer us. We no longer think in deficit, but in equal. I can’t do that yet with my sister. I don’t know enough about her.
Sister, you are so different from me. You beliefs repulse me. You words disgust me. I want to understand the nature of this repulsion and disgust. I want to stop dehumanizing you, and begin to learn from you so that I see you as human again.
I run the scenario in my head again, when she says, “I don’t care about my students.” Instead of automatically judging her, or admonishing her, what if I make it an interview?
Sister – “I don’t care about my students.”
Y – “Why not? If you are not there for your students, why are you there?
Tell me sister, why do you teach?
What makes you get up so early to tolerate those annoying parents and their needy children with their grubby hands?
You come to school for 180 days out of the year, for more years than I have ever taught. Why? What motivates you?
Does teaching make you happy? If so, what is it about teaching that brings you to this joy?
Are you unhappy about it? What is it that makes you unhappy?
If you could change the system, what would you do?
We are so different, you and I, my sister. Please help me understand you better. Maybe this isn’t about telling or changing you at all. Maybe it’s about changing ME, and converting my rage into energy that is transformative for myself. I’ve learned though, that the process of transformation is often a mutual endeavor.