Saturday, August 13, 2016

It's Okay to Be Mean

The time has come to start thinking about work again (bummer). As summer comes to a close, I will return for my seventh year as a teacher. This is also the year when my inaugural class will return to school as seniors. I feel both very proud...and a little old. It's got me thinking not just about how my students have changed over the years, but how I've changed.

There are a lot of differences between a first year teacher and a seventh year teacher. I'm certainly not going to tell you that I had all the answers then, or that I have all the answers now. More of them, sure. And even though I've learned a lot from teaching, and there is far more to learn, I have been able to narrow down what I've learned so far into one all important lesson:

It's okay to be mean.


What I mean is, it's okay if students don't love you, or even necessarily like you. It's okay if the students think you're a big fat meanie (although I'm sure that's not how they would word it). I think a lot of newer teachers sometimes forget that your job isn't to get all the students to like you, to love you, or for you to be their favorite teacher. None of these things are ultimately reflected in the grade book or in the scores on whatever state mandated test your students take.

When I started teaching, I didn't think it was my job to get students to like me, but I certainly wanted them to. I had this idea in my head that the more they liked me, the more they would listen to me, learn from me, and respect me. Oh, Dian. You're silly! It didn't take me long at all to realize that when students like you, they tend to view you as someone who is closer to their level, almost in a friendly way, and that means they are actually less likely to take you seriously. And when you're a small person like me, a person who is often referred to as an ankle-biting chihuahua when they are angry, getting people to take you seriously is already pretty difficult. So I stopped focusing on being liked and worried more about the one thing that actually counts: respect. My students may not like me or love me, but they for damn sure respect me.

Gaining respect from students is the one thing I've struggled with the most, and you basically start with a clean slate each year with a new group of students. For example, my very first teaching position was a summer school job. I taught English to rising juniors who'd failed tenth grade English. The school was in a tough area, and the tiny white girl in the room just didn't earn much respect. Take, for example, a post I made to Facebook during that term:

"Just for the record guys, I don't write my name on the board every day to be called YO MISS TEACHER LADY or MISS UM CAN I GO TO THE BATHROOM. I expect to be called by my name much as you expect me to call you by your name and not YO KID IN THE ORANGE SHIRT."

There are two things I can tell you reflecting back on that post. The first is that I never actually earned the respect of that group. Not one iota of it. In fact, there was one day where it was so bad that I just gave up. It didn't seem to matter what I said or how I said it, or what I did or how I did it. The students just flat out ignored me, went about their business like I was invisible. What are you supposed to do? Stomp your feet a whine that no one is listening to you? I don't think so. Instead, I sat at my desk and just supervised them to make sure they didn't burn the building down. When they noticed, one of them said, "Yo, we broke teach!". When another student asked what they should do, I said, "I don't care." They didn't either. It's easily the most frustrating day I've had as a teacher, because I didn't understand the lesson yet. It's not enough to want respect, and you can't beg for it (which is what I was doing). You have to demand it. And I didn't know how to do that then.

Secondly, I can tell you that this says something about how naive I was. I must say something like, "Hey, you! Yeah, you in the orange shirt! Sit down and cut it out!" three times a week, especially at the beginning of the year, and often to students I don't even have. It's not about respect or learning their names. It's about trying to get the attention of the right student in the middle of a crowded gymnasium even if you don't know their name so you can tell them to stop acting like a jerk or stop running or give so-and-so their lunch box back. Sometimes calling them out by their clothes is really your only option. I'm not doing it to be disrespectful. But I'll admit that not everyone necessarily sees it the same way I do, and being unafraid to call a student out - whether you know them or not - for being rude or running or cussing or whatever it is, can sometimes earn you that reputation as the "mean" teacher, the one whose mere name on a student's schedule can inspire a quiet dread.

For nearly all of my years as a teacher, I have been viewed as the "mean" teacher. And that isn't because I yell all day or get mad at the kids over stupid things. It's not because I charge up and down the halls like a bull, shoving kids out of my way. It's because I demand respect. If students aren't showing me respect, or showing respect to themselves or others, I will not hesitate to call you out on it. I will not hesitate to turn this into a lesson for you. And that lesson is that you had better be respectful at all times no matter what your personal feelings are. You will not disrespect anyone in my presence, and if you do, then you'll suffer the consequences. Is that mean? Some people might think so, but that's okay with me. I don't need you to like me. I need you to respect me. When you respect me, you listen to me. When you listen to me, you learn from me. And when you learn from me, I've fulfilled my purpose.

My students might tell you that I'm mean or that they don't like me. They might tell you I give too much work, that my expectations are too high, that I hand out lunch detentions like candy. But they'll never tell you that they didn't learn from me. And I think that says something about the lesson I've learned, and the lesson that I'll keep trying to pass on to them.

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