I struggle with endings, with hitting the balance between hope and regret. Despite wanting my students to listen carefully, review assignments, and take extra time to perfect their work, I am impatient myself. I always wish I’d done something different, pushed harder, and accomplished more.
Monday, I had my students over for a party at the end of the year. I haven’t done that in years. I think they had a good time and we ate and laughed some. I sent them out on the beach while Gary and I cleaned up, and they came back after a long time, grinning and sandy.
They asked me if I wasn’t glad the school year was over.
I almost never am.
These are graduating seniors, with summer plans of work and travel and college classes in the fall.
I always wish I had more time, that I could have their full attention for another month in order to, as my mother would say, “whip them into shape.”
The truth is, I am slow to get to know my students, and then I value them as people. I wanted them to work harder and mostly they did. They made no more mistakes than I did in high school, but expectations have not been set nearly high enough. They have coasted too much.
An administrator complained to me the other day that these current high school students are afraid of things being too hard, that their parents do not want their children to struggle, and that even some teachers find it impossible to set high standards because doing so makes more work for them too. Everyone wants to make education easier, as if that were possible or even a good idea.
Throughout my teaching career, I have been asked to articulate my teaching philosophy. After 40+ years, I would say it comes down to this: Set a high standard, support incremental growth, and demand excellence. When we show them they can accomplish beyond their expectations, they are capable of pushing on. When we make the work easy, we are telling students that “easy” is all they are capable of accomplishing. We reinforce their belief that struggle is equal to failure.
Many years ago, I heard Kylene Beers speak at an NCTE Conference. I’d been heading into the conference room next door, but the presenter in that room stood outside her door: “Go see Kylene. You’ll be glad, and I am presenting again in the next session.” I took her advice. One of Kylene Beers’ key points was to reveal struggle as a good and natural process. “I struggle when I read the tax forms. I struggle when I read Toni Morrison.”
The choir teachers from my son’s high school days were exceptionally demanding. Do it better, be stronger, try something even harder! Sometimes those teenaged singers would listen to their songs and be simply amazed at how excellent they sounded. They produced professional performances. They gained confidence and ambition as a result of that demand to do the harder thing, that insistence that they do it and do it and do it again, until they have mastered themselves.
Learning is struggle, struggle makes us strong, strength makes us better.
My teaching is done for the time being and I must return to my own work. I still have a warp to wind, a quilt to complete, and a story that wants editing.
This week: Slow down, do better, amaze myself.