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Teaching Is about the Heart

The recently retired teacher was holding forth at lunch the other day about how kids aren’t half as good as they used to be.  They’re rude, they’re disinterested, they’re disrespectful, they’re disengaged.  You can’t teach them anything.   “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country with kids like this,” she concluded.  Well, not “concluded.”  “Stopped for air” is more like it.

As one of the luncheon group, I kept my head down and focused on my salad, grateful that this woman never worked for me and thinking she should have retired a long time ago.  For the most part I spent my career with teachers who were competent, dedicated, responsible, and enthusiastic about their profession.  They genuinely liked kids.  They didn’t look for excuses, badmouth their students, or spend a lot of time talking about how hard their jobs were.  They kept their sense of humor.  After a couple of attempts to change the subject, I sat quietly waiting for the check.  I didn’t order this big glass of whine.

So Greg Michie’s blog post, “Salvador’s Last Day” was just the antidote I needed when I got home.  Michie, who teaches in the Chicago public schools, tells the story of 13-year-old Salvador, a “sweet kid” who informs him one day that his family is moving soon.  Salvador seems to like Michie’s class and often hangs around afterwards to help straighten up.  Michie has noticed that Salvador has to squint to see the board, and the teacher makes a mental note to check on getting him glasses.

But Salvador doesn’t leave, and after a while Michie begins to wonder if the boy is really moving or whether it’s just a story to draw some attention to himself.  Michie adds, “Or maybe he just didn’t want to vanish from our school unnoticed, which isn’t uncommon in city schools.  Living in poverty doesn’t always afford parents the luxury of planning ahead, and I remember occasions when, out of nowhere, the intercom buzzed, a kid was called down to the office, and that was it.  Gone.”

One day the boy is fooling around in class and Michie yells at him to sit down and get to work. Chastened and silent, Salvador doesn’t stick around at the end of class, but he comes in after school.  He wants to say goodbye; it is, finally, his last day.  Michie is dumbfounded, berating himself for yelling at the boy on his last day and for not having the foresight to prepare a little farewell – or to check on those glasses.  “It’s Sayinggoodbye not that I wanted to make a big production of it,” Michie writes.  “But if creating a welcoming and affirming classroom environment is part of a teacher’s job, isn’t it also our responsibility to say a decent goodbye?” In the end, “Value added formulas for teacher evaluation don’t account for how one says goodbye to a kid,” he adds.

“Like so much of teaching, how we respond to the loss of a student – whether to violence, a terminal disease, or a family’s relocation – is not a science, not something that can be neatly quantified.  It’s another reminder that teaching is about the heart as much as the head,” he concludes.

I’ve had those kids who disappear one day, sometimes leaving a desk full of papers and books.  I’ve known kids who were enrolled in three or four elementary schools before fifth grade, all within a 50-mile radius.  Often their schooling was interrupted for a few weeks while the family got organized.  It is, as Michie says, one of the side effects of poverty.

So let me remind my retired colleague that kids are kids and have always been so, but that some of them today have to deal with many more issues than kids did 30 years ago.  If anything, they need even more care and understanding than kids did in earlier times.  Criticizing them doesn’t help; recognizing a child’s needs – including saying a decent goodbye – does.




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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.