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UFT.org Home > News > New York Teacher > New teacher > New teacher diaries > As it turns out, I don’t know everything
by Mr. Foteah | June 3, 2010 New York Teacher issue
Today, when you were supposed to be reading your book, and while I was meeting with another 5th-grade student, I saw you writing something furiously. You are one of the few students in the class who regularly and dutifully records your thoughts on Post-its and, when I excused myself from my conference to come see what you were doing, I expected to see just that. However, when I asked you what you were doing, you told me about your book. I listened, but continued to glance at what you were trying to hide under your arm. When I saw it, I was less than happy. You were doing last night’s homework, and I was livid.
I did not react as I should have. Taking your paper and crumpling it was inappropriate. Had I thought for a moment, I would have remembered that you are one of the most diligent, hard-working students in the class and that something was amiss.
I should have asked you why you didn’t do your homework, rather than make rash assumptions. Instead, I tossed your paper in the trash and returned to the other student, without a word to you or even a glance back, thinking that you’d receive the message of disappointment and disdain I sought to deliver. (Maybe I didn’t want to see the horror that had surely set upon your face.)
When I finished with the other student, I called you to my desk. I continued to lecture you and said I was upset with two things: you didn’t do your homework, and you lied to me.
But then I saw you were becoming upset and I pulled back. That’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was dealing with Gladys. There had to be something going on here. You pretty much always do your homework, and we enjoy a strong rapport. Now, as your shame turned to tears, I finally let you speak.
You told me your 51-year-old mother was sick. She had a disease you couldn’t remember the name of, but it meant that her bones were weak and could break. You told me she was in pain and feeling aggravation from you and your brother. I asked you if you had a sister close in age that you were friends with. You told me that, of your eight siblings, that sister repeatedly blamed you for your parents’ divorce.
I sent a trusted student for tissues so you could dry your tears. I listened intently, all the while feeling like a fool for the way I handled your attempt to make me happy by completing your homework. You struggled to get many of your words out, clearly hurting from the stresses of home life.
When I threw your work in the garbage, I invalidated your efforts and, by extension, invalidated you. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing, but reflecting on it now, I know that must be how you felt. You must have been embarrassed, too. You probably felt powerless — kind of like you’re feeling at home.
At the beginning of the year, I told you and your classmates that our room would be a safe, respectful place for everyone. This afternoon, it ceased being so for you. Worst of all, I was the one to shatter the serenity.
You didn’t deserve that. You show up daily for school, not uttering a single complaint about having to wear hand-me-downs that are several sizes too big, keeping quiet your feelings about your home as you shoulder loads no child your age should have to. Why did I allow one minor and meaningless incident to cloud the ways you’ve inspired and amazed me this year?
You have improved exponentially. You’ve moved up five reading levels. You’ve written honest, riveting stories that have brought me to the verge of tears. You’ve gained confidence and have shown kindness to everyone. I feel terribly that my stupidity may have undone the pride you’ve come to have in yourself.
Tomorrow, I will apologize to you in person. You’ll pardon me, I hope, if I get a little emotional. I will ask you to try to rewrite what I so flippantly cast aside as garbage, and will instead choose to honor your dedication to improving yourself. I will remind you of what I told you today when I realized how severely I had misjudged the situation: that you’re a wonderful young person who cares for her friends and family, and that you are one of the most dedicated students in the class. I will ask you to forgive me for being so crass.
I will tell you that I made a mistake and will commit to doing my best to think before acting. Internally, I will remind myself that you and your classmates often have it worse at home than I could ever imagine. And I will remember one of my mantras about your peers and you: Given the circumstances, sometimes it’s amazing just how well you all do.
Sometimes teachers have to learn, too. Thank you for helping me learn.
Mr. Foteah is a second-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens. A version of this post first appeared in the UFT blog, edwize.org, where “New Teacher Diaries” is a regular feature. If you’re interested in writing for edwize, send an e-mail to William Levay at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is your favorite movie about a teacher?
Dead Poets Society
Stand and Deliver
Mr. Holland's Opus
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