Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Student Voice: Changing The Way It's Done

I love sharing this space with my students. This week's student voice is junior, Elise. Elise's voice is rich; you'll see.
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In first grade, something happened to me that would change my opinion on school forever. My class was working on an almost stereotypical spelling worksheet, thirty sticky sets of hands scribbling away. (Why are young children always so dang sticky? Is there a giant vat of apple juice we older people don’t know about, that kids are constantly swimming in?) I decided to write my name in cursive, believing it made me more superior to the other first graders, not “Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett superior”, but “Audrey Hepburn and Truman Capote” superior (not that my sticky mind knew who those people even were). As I looped the E incorrectly and dotted the mishaped i, an unforgiving hand whipped out of nowhere and grabbed my wrist, tugging it back so my pencil dropped to the desk, taking my longing for some sympathy with it. My first grade teacher, stared down at me, her face pinched, and made sure I knew I wasn’t the superior one by saying, “No cursive. That’s for when you’re older.”  
 
Whether that sounds overly dramatic to you, that’s how my mind chose to remember it. And by remembering something like that, my hesitance towards teachers has been prominent ever since. In the beginning of high school, they made me nervous, especially the English instructors (it’s my favorite subject, I NEEDED them to like me so I could cry with them when Gatsby and Tom Robinson kicked the bucket). 
But when a student is given a good teacher, it’s magical. 

Over the past weekend, one of my favorite teachers invited me to a conference at a public school near ours (Kent Innovation High School). There were many inspiring seminars, ones with bacon pianos and ones with wikki sticks and ones with ideas on today’s traditional school system that blew my mind. 

The most incredible part? The teachers.

One of the best seminars happened to be led by the teacher that invited me (I may totally be biased, but it was dang good). It focused on bullying. Not the typical “bullies are evil”, “oh look at that poor nerd being beat up by that jock”, “Draco Malfoy, you bully!” My teacher targeted how confronting the bully isn’t always the right path of action. Bullies are going through heartache just as much as Elizabeth Bennett did with that crazy Darcy fellow. Sometimes, all one needs to do is put an arm around the victim's shoulder (direct words from said teacher). Let them know that they are not alone. They are not ‘stupid’ or ‘fat’ or ‘nerdy’. And the bully isn’t the devil rising from the depths of Tartarus either. The bully is simply in pain, like the victim.

With over fifty talented teachers scattered around one building, I realized this idea of empathy over confrontation directly correlated to my experience with teachers. When a student encounters a ‘bad’ teacher, that instructor is not bad; he just wasn’t meant to teach, or she isn’t the best educator for that particular student. Atticus Finch changed my life when he said, “You never really understand a person until...you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Unless students have taught a rowdy class of kids before, we cannot know the struggles of teachers, just like the victims cannot know the struggles of the bully, or the bystanders cannot know the pain of the victim, and so on. “To perceive, is to suffer.” (Aristotle said that, and I don’t even care if it makes me sound pretentious). To feel empathy with someone, is a power some don’t hold. The only thing anyone can do now, is put an arm around those who hurt, and let them know that they are not alone.