Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Day I Realized I Lost My Students' Respect (Or Never Had It In The First Place)

Yesterday contained one of the lowest lows I've ever experienced as a teacher.

Representatives from the state's Charter School Office were observing every classroom as part of a critical site visit of our young school. Our students were told what was going on and that many visitors would be watching classes throughout the day.

I have never expected my students to put on a show when someone (anyone) comes into the classroom. I expect that I have my students focused and on task enough that they might not even notice someone come in (which has happened many times in years past). I would like to think that if I'm doing my job, there's nothing to hide or fear no matter when someone might wander in. It's why I usually completely ignore whoever enters, and go on as if nothing happened after they leave. It sends a clear message that they are not to perform; this is the way things need to be all the time.

That being said, I've been in this game long enough to know one thing to be absolutely true: If your students respect you, they will always be at their absolute best when someone observes the class without being asked. If you have built strong relationships with them, they want to make you look good because they like you and respect you. They don't want you to be fired, reprimanded or reassigned elsewhere. It is one small way they know they can say "thank you" in a meaningful way.

I'm happy to say that I've always had students on my side, and knew I wouldn't have to ask them to behave or pretend they're learning something. They did behave and they were learning something. Even when I had horrible classes, or good classes with that one student who was like a tornado of disruptive behavior, they all showed me this respect without fail. I've been in classrooms where students had no respect for their teacher, and usually for good reason. I'm not that kind of teacher.

I've never, ever been embarrassed by a class as much as I was on Tuesday. First, an observer came into this particular class at the beginning, and the students were better than usual. It wasn't long after she left that things went south. They were so engrossed in their inane conversations and dutifully ignoring their work that they were oblivious to a second observer coming in. This observer got to see what the classroom looks like on a regular basis.

Now, the observer didn't seem to be very surprised or interested in what they saw (he actually seemed a little more focused on organizing his paperwork). In addition, the preliminary feedback we received from the CSO was completely positive, almost overwhelmingly so. So really, what happened in my classroom doesn't matter in the context of the big picture.

Unfortunately, none of that is comforting to me in the least. My students sent me a clear message yesterday:

We don't respect you.
We don't care about your class.
We could care less if you weren't our teacher tomorrow.

I wouldn't believe any of this if yesterday wasn't the latest in a series of similar episodes. I now realize that this particular class has been mediocre to awful in every observation I've had this year. The feelings of embarrassment and frustration from each of those flooded back to me yesterday, magnified through the introspective lens I had turned on myself due to the stress of this whole process.

Now I'm left with a ton of questions. What did I do wrong this year? Have I really failed that thoroughly and completely? How much of it is my fault? Am I devolving as a teacher?

I'll end this on a slightly positive note. While I basically indicted the entire class, there is a small group of extraordinary students in that same class that make me want to get up and come to school every day. I thank them constantly, but not enough. I wish I could take comfort in their amazing effort, but I can't.