when students don’t consider themselves thinkers

I almost walked out on my class the other day. They weren’t doing anything terrible, just talking over me and over each other a bit, and a few hadn’t done their homework, but several moments had just happened consecutively that together made me upset with the realization that they didn’t think of themselves as thinkers.

As it came to a head and I stopped class and made a little speech (what I generally call ‘public service announcements’, a moment outside of the normal run of class time when I address an issue of class behavior, make a correction to the emotional tenor, or identify something that I think may be an underlying misunderstanding), and I realized that I almost was crying, I remembered a time when I did walk out on my class, years ago when I was in my first year as a teacher.

The reason at that time was that my students weren’t listening to each other in their class presentations, and all the work I had thoughtfully prepared (the project design, the research support, the tips on note-taking, etc.) seemed to be all for nought, casually disregarded, or worse, not even considered as meaningful or worthy at all.

I did leave the room- first I think I spoke to them in a strong voice (not yelling), then I realized I was probably going to cry, so I walked stiff-armed out of the room and into the closest faculty bathroom, where I hung out for a while, standing in a stall, sniffing furiously and blowing my nose. When I returned to the class probably 5 minutes later the students were quietly working, a group presenting while others took notes. They were gentle with me for a while after that. It was sweet.

I read somewhere recently that people don’t actually cry out of sadness, but out of frustration, and this rings so true.

In planning to write this entry I had thought my experience over ten years ago was notably different. Not only in that then, I actually did cry and leave the room, but I also had thought that the incident years ago was for a different reason- that kids generally were just not working, or there was an actual behavioral issue, something more substantive. But now in writing this I realize that the reason I left the room in 2005 was the same reason I stopped my class this past Tuesday and actually considered walking out on them. Both times, I was frustrated that my students weren’t acting as, weren’t thinking themselves as, thinkers.

Partly it is selfish– and what I said to the kids this week reflects this– because what I’m reacting to is that my own work is being devalued. But ‘my own work’ is not just the setting up of countless educational scenarios, every minute of planning and preparation that I do for the 140 minutes a week I see each 10th grade class. My work is also the building of student identities, my influence in helping them form their minds. My teaching is not only about the Cold War or economic development or the effects of meditation. It’s about how to learn, and how to be curious, and how to get better at learning and communicating our learning. I want my kids to think of themselves as capable, and to act like it. That’s why I raised my voice at Felipe when he tried to read what he had written aloud for the class and couldn’t make any sense of the idea of it, then laughed and shrugged, not even trying. Not only were the kids not engaging with the material (that my other sections of the same class had rhapsodized about), they weren’t engaging with themselves. I told them I wanted them to take themselves more seriously, take what we were doing with each other in class more seriously, that I needed to see that more.

Now, a week later, I’m inclined to be forgiving, because I am aware of a lot of research that says that teenage brains really are less capable of quality decision-making and intentional focus, and because I know it’s OK to not always take yourself seriously, and we have many more days in the classroom together, and I have faith that they’ll get better and things will change. We have more days together, and they have more years in high school, and more years of developing as a learner after that. I hope at some point they realize that they are intellectual beings, that they enjoy learning, that they can use their minds to do amazing things. I think it may be the most important thing that I teach them.

About Allison Poirot

ALLI POIROT is currently teaching IB History, Modern World History, and Psychology at Asociación Escuelas Lincoln in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She taught previously at King's Academy in Madaba, Jordan, and at public and charter schools in and around Boston, Massachusetts. She has a deep interest in progressive pedagogy and believes in fostering student autonomy and empowerment.
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