Caring in the Classroom (Essay by Susan Newark) Education Community College
The following piece from 1992 was previously used in the sociology program at Arizona State University (where Newark, was in charge of the graduate teaching assistants) , previously published in The Write Byte at College of the Siskiyous, and excerpted in Dear Husband. Here Newark shows how caring about the students changes their learning experience.
Caring in the Classroom
Last semester in English 102, I had a student I’ll call Joe. Joe swaggered in the first day, late and noisily talking to his friends, with whom he sat in the back of the room. He challenged my comments just to be a pain and amuse his friends. He grumbled while I was talking, and I had to reprimand him several times over the first few weeks. He dressed sloppily, slouched in his seat, pretended not to pay attention. He was what I privately like to call The Attitude. After I received the first batch of in-class writings, I noticed right off that he was perceptive. I added a note on his paper advising what great potential he had. The day I returned it to him, he participated in the class discussion, offering an excellent comment. His friends abruptly challenged him, one saying sarcastically, “What are you, Mr. English major?” But I praised Joe’s comment and knew he was secretly pleased. This was a step in the right direction, but for a student to come all the way around, it takes more than one step.
From then on, Joe alternated behaviors. I continued to write encouraging notes but frequently had to get on him about class behavior. On the day of our first research paper conference, Joe still did not have a topic or sources. He was behind schedule. It was his first time alone with me. He sauntered in, slouched down, and refused to make eye contact. He kept moving in the weirdest way, jerking his head when talking, to the point of looking almost mentally challenged. When I asked questions, he said things like “I dunno.” It was so hard to keep his attention that I was getting frustrated. For a moment, I envisioned my hands around his throat shaking him. Instead I leaned forward and sought his gaze, forcing him to look at me. He was intensely uncomfortable, and I suddenly realized that under all that attitude, he was painfully shy. I then knew that his showing up at the conference was a tremendous step. This encouraged me.
I asked why he hadn’t started his research, and he couldn’t think of a topic. I asked what his major was, and he didn’t know. I asked what his interests were but he didn’t have any. Clearly he was drifting in his life as well as in my class. Finally he confided that he used to be a member of a New York gang. I think he was hoping to shock me, but after three years of teaching, nothing does. I smiled and said that he could write about that if he wanted, because his personal experience would enhance his research. He complained about not knowing what to say, and I countered that he was such a good writer that he shouldn’t have any problem. He noted that it was easy to answer my in-class questions but not to invent material on his own. I said my usual questions were very general and that it was his ability to translate his answers into specific examples that made his papers so good. After we talked a while, I sensed he was really responding to me. I told him to go to the library, get some articles, and come back at the end of my conference period.
I thought I’d gotten through to him, but he didn’t come back. Just before the next class, I saw him in the hall. I knew he’d seen me, but he didn’t acknowledge me. I said hello and called him by name. His face lit up and he walked over. He apologized and said he’d found good articles but that he didn’t have money to pay for copies. I’ve heard every excuse there is for not getting something done, and I can tell when a student is B.S.ing me. He wasn’t. He sincerely hoped I’d believe him, and I could tell that he was afraid I wouldn’t, since he’d been flaky before. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. I smiled and said I was glad he’d found the articles, asking him to bring them to the next class.
While all this was happening, the students had turned in a major assignment, which I was handing back that day. I assign a summary of a literary critical article, which the students have to outline and summarize into a new format, along with quoting and paraphrasing without plagiarizing. It’s a hard assignment, and I always allow them to turn in extra summaries to boost their skills and grades. Joe had gotten a B+, great for the first try. I noted on his paper that I was sure he could get an A if he tried again. After class, he said he would do the extra credit. He no longer cared what his friends thought (and by the way, those who hadn’t dropped out were also responding well to me, although I doubt any of them realized how hard the others were trying).
The Joe I met the following week was a new man. Mr. Attitude was gone. I was standing out in front of my class on break as I always do. Socializing a bit with the students between classes or just being there if they need me helps to relax them. Anyway, Joe walked up and said triumphantly that he had the articles. I said great and that I’d look them over at the end of class. He went in the room and came back to say that he’d done the extra credit assignment. I assured he knew how pleased I was. He smiled and went back inside. Then he came out again to show me everything he’d done, and I praised how much he’d accomplished over the weekend, asking him to put the papers on my desk. A few minutes later, he emerged again, proudly waving the papers and double-checking that I wanted them on my desk.
From that point on, Joe was a model student. He wrote one of the most beautifully done midterm exams I’d ever seen. He compared himself to the moth in Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” explaining that he was flitting his life away on hopeless things. He discussed his childhood in a broken home with an alcoholic father who promised to visit but didn’t, a stepfather who obviously had it in for him, an idiotic boss who treated him like shit, a girlfriend who said she would marry him but whom he was scared to believe because his last two dumped him unexpectedly. He covered his problems in my class and feared that being behind would make him a loser once again. But what really impressed me was the way in which he recognized the connections between his personal problems and his attitude at school. I had never once said anything to him about attitude.
I wrote him a personal note on the midterm, praising his great work and advising him not to let the problems hold him back from the wonderful potential he displayed. By the next conference, to which he was supposed to bring an outline, he showed up with the outline and a complete introduction to his paper, asking me to review his progress. He explained articulately where he was going. His shyness was gone; his attitude had disappeared. All that remained was his talent and newfound confidence.
Joe is what I would call an at-risk student. Every semester many thousands like him drop out of school. Every semester, I have several in each class. It is not always that they lack ability, though they sometimes do, but rather just that they need someone to believe in them. I honestly think that when Joe was in my class, he had no one else but me. Many students are in that position (especially those away from home for the first time).
And incidentally, Joe’s most smart-aleck friend confided on his midterm that he had gotten a D.U.I. He was sorry and wanted to make amends, but his family was so disgusted that no one would even acknowledge his existence. He compared himself to being a ghost in Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman”—a ghost in Chinese society being a person who had disgraced the family and whom no one would acknowledge. This young man was initially a low-D student with poor skills and a worse attitude, yet by midterm, he was able to take a literary character and do a genuine analysis of himself in relation to her. After I wrote more encouraging notes on his papers, he responded with a major improvement in his work. He went from a D to a C+ and literally shouted out in joy after our final class when he found out his grade. Joe, as you have probably guessed, got an A and even has some career direction, now considering majoring in English.
In a way, Joe and his friend were easy cases, because their attitudes at the beginning clued me in that they were screaming for positive attention. The harder ones are the silent ones, those who brood unproductively without revealing blatant symptoms. I get so many highly personal responses on the writing assignments that I know the students are dying to talk to someone. They tell me things that they wouldn’t even tell their friends. It’s scary in a way to realize how much power a teacher has over the students—and I’m not talking about the power to give grades, but rather the power to change their lives. It’s even scarier to realize how little it takes to accomplish this: knowing their names, writing a few personal notes, talking one on one, praising potentials as well as advising on mistakes.
I constantly have to remind myself as the semester progresses and I get more stressed out that the little things I do for the students mean a lot. A smile and some eye contact do wonders. And once used to it, their building self-esteem will not allow them to accept less. One day a couple of years ago, I walked into my 7:30 class and said good morning. I was ready to start the discussion but the students would not let me proceed. They insisted I tell them what was wrong. I was exhausted and upset about something, but I didn’t think I’d done anything to convey it. When I asked them why they thought something was wrong, they informed me that I always smiled at them when I came into the room but that I hadn’t this time. Needless to say, I smiled.
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