Yesterday I set up the context for today's reflection from my time spent teaching. If you didn't see Part One, you really ought to read it first.
When I entered that teaching job, I was able to borrow heavily from other colleagues. Since they had established curriculum, I thought that was the best place to start, and I could tweak as necessary. In my course for seniors, the format had them begin by writing an essay entitled, "What I Wish." I gave them little guidance other than to give me an essay fulfilling that topic. Some students chose to be flippant whereas others approached the topic earnestly. Whatever the tone of the essay, I was able to learn more about my students and gauge their writing strengths and weaknesses. From there, we could delve however deeply into the nuances of formal writing.
Once we reached the end of our semester together and began reading Staggerford together, students were able to connect with the text as Hassler included excerpts from the essays as Miles Pruitt graded them.
However, before that point, I had an opportunity to face a similar crisis as I shared in the excerpt yesterday. One student of mine chose as her topic her broken family. Her wish was that her brother would return home and that he would stop his deception; that she could turn back time and save her brother from being faced with parenthood and supporting his pregnant girlfriend when he had no steady employment.
The girl wrote well, so I wasn't faced with the dilemma of correcting her grammar or style, but I sat transfixed, deliberating as to what I should write for comments. The raw emotion in her paper had me riveted, and being the mediator that I am, I wished I could solve the problem. But how could I share with her that I empathized? After all, I barely knew my students, it was the start of the year. What would be appropriate?
I decided to be honest with her. I wrote that I appreciated her frankness, and that while the situations weren't identical, I had gone through a family situation that wasn't altogether different. Our family wrestled with the best way to support my sister in the midst of her decisions, and in the end, she matured so much through the experience and I had a new closeness with her. I wished a similar fate to my student's situation.
After no follow-up from the student, I soon forgot my comment and her what her response to it might have been. Then October came around, and I was conducting conferences with parents in the cafeteria, converted to accomodate meetings between all the teachers and parents. While meeting with this girl's mother, we discussed the routine information, the daughter's grade sheet before us.
Towards the end of the conference, the mother brought up the "What I Wish" essay: "My daughter came home from school the day you returned those essays, and she said, 'Mom, you have to read what my teacher wrote on my paper.' We both were so touched. That meant so much to her. Thank you for doing that. Can I ask you more about your experience?"
We shared the experiences we had in common, both of us blinking back tears. I relived the uncertainty of that time in our family and the eventual transformation in my sister, and her eyes and words betrayed the anguish she was facing daily. She took comfort in the hope that her situation could improve, and that reconciliation could come in time.
As our conference ended and I collected myself for the next one, I was gratified that I had followed through on my instincts. What had my comments actually done? The brother hadn't returned home, the family was still dealing with the brokenness. But in being transparent, I shared my experience and perhaps gave a measure of hope. That I wrote something personal meant something to the student, so much so that this girl showed her essay to her mother, wanting to pass on the hope that though things be hard now, they could change.
That was one of my prouder moments in teaching.