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An Apology From a Teacher Who, It Turns Out, Doesn’t Know Everything

[Editor’s note: Mr. Foteah is a second-year teacher in an elementary school in Queens. He blogs at From the Desk of Mr. Foteah , where this post originally appeared.]

crumpled paperDear Gladys,

Today, when you were supposed to be reading your book, and while I was meeting with another 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, instead of reacting instantly, I would have remembered that you are one of the most diligent, hard-working students in the class. I would have realized something was amiss.

I should have asked you why you didn’t do your homework, rather than make rash assumptions. But I didn’t. 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 over to my desk and told you to sit. Again, I seethed, and let my emotions get the best of me. 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 that’s when 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 having 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 adult 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.

Sincerely,

Your Teacher

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4 Comments:

  • 1 Phyllis C. Murray
    · May 25, 2010 at 9:52 am

    The Teachers Declaration states that we need on-site intervention with social, health care, and dropout prevention services based on teacher/parent and community partnerships. And that must be true.

    Surely, teachers cannot provide all of the students’ needs. However, teachers must be able to find the professionals who have the answers.

    So how can we change the culture and climate of the school so that everyone feels safe?

    It has been said: “Teachers’ want what children need.” Certainly, we must look to educators first to maintain safety in the classroom: Physical safety as well as emotional safety. When we try to transform the classroom, into a community of learners, the first challenge is to know each student. What is the child’s learning style; its cultural needs? Are their physical challenges? Who is the child’s caregiver? How does the community impact on the child? Is there an IEP; a prior history of violence, a guidance record? a portfolio? There are so many questions to be answered. And since teachers do not have all the answers, it is imperative for all teachers to do their homework. It’s elementary.

    Phyllis C. Murray
    UFT Chapter Leader P.S. 75X

  • 2 Mr. Foteah
    · May 25, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    @Phyllis – Thank you for taking the time, not only to visit my blog and read it, but to provide your comments. I agree: it’s imperative for teachers to be able to establish relationships at the outset of the year with parents, guardians, and student support systems within the school, all, of course, for the betterment and well-being of the individual student. While it is my stated goal to increase parental involvement in my classes (and I have made progress), I am proud to say I share a wonderful working relationship with my school’s guidance counselor. Our relationship enables us to collaborate to promote the welfare of our students, which, as you say, is so vital to the functioning of the community of learners.

    Now, you say “it is imperative for all teachers to do their homework,” that, in fact, “it’s elementary.” As I wrote, I knew I handled the situation with Gladys incorrectly because, when I came to my senses, I remembered I was dealing with one of my most motivated, eager students. So, I know her in that regard. It wasn’t a case of me not having done my homework, but rather a case of me becoming caught in the moment.

    The other ways of knowing a student you mention, well, these are things (many of them), that emerge over the course of a year. I don’t know my students’ learning styles the second they walk in the door on day one – how could I possibly? We all evolve over the year, and even today, as we stand on the doorstep of June, I am still getting to know my students and what makes them tick academically, socially, and emotionally.

    I feel one of my greatest strengths is that I allow each student a clean slate when they come into my room. I listen to what former teachers tell me about students, but I always make my own assessments of individuals. (Case in point: supervisors and colleagues marvel at the progress one of my students has made in my room, considering how many times he was suspended last year and how often he was removed from his room. I don’t have those issues with him.)

    So many of those other points you raise do come to me by way of the guidance counselor, who, more than anyone in the building, knows what goes on. You know, kids are often pressured by their parents to stay quiet on issues in the home. It’s amazing sometimes that I’m even able to have the frank discussions I do have with them. That speaks to the trust my students have in me.

    I know my students. If I didn’t, I would not have given a second thought to this whole Gladys situation. But since I know her so well, I gave it many thoughts, and it made me very uncomfortable. I feel that, given the situation I created, I did a fair job of rectifying it.

    Had I not known any better about Gladys, I would have never recognized the error of my ways. Since I do know her, though, I could proceed accordingly. In the future, should any similar situation ever occur, I am confident that, with the sensitivity I have toward my students, I will be able to handle it appropriately again.

  • 3 Phyllis C. Murray
    · May 26, 2010 at 12:43 am

    Mr. Foteach:
    Once teachers have rolled up their sleeves…the process of education begins with commitment, dedication, care, and concern for a human soul.

    For the students who have found teachers , like you, who are there to support them on their educational journey, I say, press on! These students are the fortunate ones because it is their teacher who must dream for them before they can dream for themselves. It is the teacher who prepares children for a future which is not his/her own.
    These exceptional teachers are fortunate because for every ounce of energy that they use to invest in the child, they will see the rewards of their investment in the child’s continued growth and development throughout the year.

    Not so long ago, I asked several students to define the word “teacher.” This was not a difficult task for them because after years benefitting from instruction by master teachers, they knew what being a “teacher” was all about. And of course the genre used was sheer poetry.

    WHAT IS A TEACHER
    >
    > Written by Bibana ~Ashanti ~~Jamal~~Ellenah
    > ~~Diana ~~John Henry ~~and Mohammed
    >
    >
    > A teacher is a symbol of learning: a leader of learners
    and a miracle to education.
    >
    > A teacher is an educational god that leads us to goodness
    > while caring for our learning spirits.
    >
    > A teacher is the captain of our educational journey; Exact
    > about everything.
    >
    > A teacher has the courage enough to teach; And knows
    mostly all the answers.
    >
    > Teachers become our heroic inspiration.
    >
    > Teachers educate us with all of their knowledge. Smart and
    > spirited, teachers can make our brains work like computers.
    > Yet, our teachers can also hold our hands when we need it.
    >
    > Teachers reach to the sky to get what we need; And exit a
    > subject just at the right time.
    >
    > A teacher possesses the academics and grace that we all love. Teachers care for us in every imaginable way.
    >
    > Our teacher is the hero in our learning lives.
    >
    > Education is the key to success. That is what our teachers have taught us.
    >
    > Teachers are a class struggle in liberty: Believing in kids; Reaching out to kids; And instilling pride within all of us.
    >
    > Our education is important to our teachers. Therefore our teachers struggle hard to teach every student: Checking exams after school; explaining things so they are easier;And reading to us or teaching us how to read.
    >
    > Each one of our praises we give. And for everything our teachers do, we will thank them today, tomorrow and always.

  • 4 Mr. Foteah
    · May 26, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    Phyllis, I thank you for the kind words. Everything you said is true: I have put a lot into my students and have therefore gotten a lot out of them. Thank you also for sharing your students’ eloquent appraisal of the teaching profession.

    I invite you to contribute your comments again to my blog, so that more people can continue to share in our dialogue.