Students, stereotypes, and not-so-silent reactions

During my first week of teaching this year, a group of male, Caucasian students from 9th Grade English asked to speak to me after class. In hushed tones, they requested to not sit by “them” because, as one articulated, “I want to get good grades this year”. They looked at me as if I should know to whom they were referring, and I did not give them any indicator that was true. My hidden suspicion was correct–they defined “them” as the only five Latino students in our class of twenty.

I have not been confronted by such a blatant example of stereotyping before in the classroom. And the saddest part: I don’t think those students realized the true impact of their words.

My previous school’s student population was primarily low-income (as defined by the number of students who received free and reduced lunch) and Latino, in an urban community. Although, I taught students considered to be that of the minority in the U.S., yet they were the majority group in school. My current school is mostly white, rural, with a mix of African American and Latino students, about 35% low-income. And because of the diversity, I am experiencing new challenges while teaching.

After the encounter with the students in English 9 (and a conference with each student involved to debrief the initial conversation), I have been hyper alert to any communication or actions reflecting prejudices. What I wasn’t prepared for was how some of my students actually played into those stereotypes.

Some of the anecdotes provided may be examples of stereotypes being exerted into the classroom. While others, may simply show how reactions play a role in education. Either way, I am emotionally spent from a day committed to staying as calm, present, and non-reactive as possible…sometimes successfully, and other times, not so much.

Anecdote 1: My tardy policy is to close the door when class begins. Late students must wait outside the door, silently and patiently, until I can come out and conference with them about why they are late. My reasoning behind this is two-fold: 1. I don’t want them to disrupt the class when they walk in whenever they show up, and 2. I want to know why they are late (especially at beginning of the year), so we can problem-solve the issue. As a side effect, I also want them to know that I care about their learning time enough to have that one-on-one conversation about them missing instruction.

So, when I asked one female student, “Why are you late?” this morning, I was emotionally shocked when she raised her voice and got defensive. I felt my energy rising also as a defense mechanism.

“I was eating breakfast because I was late, I said!” So I had to keep asking, “But why were you late to begin with?” And she kept getting more and more upset without actually answering my question. At one point even saying, “I can just leave and go sit in the office.” I explained I didn’t want her to do that; I just wanted to finish our conversation. Finally, she decided she would just walk in the classroom on her own accord.

I waited by the open door, did not say a word. She could feel me watching, neutral expression on my face (as difficult as that was) to invite her back out to finish the conversation. Finally, she did just that.

“Do you know why I want to know why you are late?” I asked. “Well, no”, she said with a hint of sassy. “Because I care about you, and I want you here in our class.”  Her attitude began to diffuse…After a bit more discussing, she entered the room with a *slightly* pleasant demeanor, sat quietly down at her seat and got to work. She never apologized to me though. And I debated other consequences, but I am going to ride this one out with some hope for a continuation of the positive young lady I briefly met…

Anecdote 2: Me–“Please write down the sample thesis statement on the board for an example.”

Student–“No, I don’t want to.”

He gets up and walks to door with the intention of heading to his special education teacher’s room. I make a small gesture to his seat and, yet, he still walks out the door and down the hallway. I step outside, make eye contact with him as he walks way. He begrudgingly makes his way back to meet me. The patience well is running dry. After our conversation, I still wonder what set him off, so resistant to authority. And I realize, it probably wasn’t me to begin with…

Anecdote 3: Me–“Why are you late?” This student knows the routine. Yet, I was still met with silence as he walks into class on his own. Ignores me. Completely. “Please step outside”, I asked, politely, confidently. No response. Finally he gets up and walks outside, rolling his eyes and sighing along the way.

During our conversation, it is clear he is trying everything to hurt my feelings….He tells me, “You guys are all the same.” He explains he is referring to all teachers. I ask him to not group me with other teachers. “Besides, would you want me to group you with all students?” He ignores my question and says, “I don’t listen to you anyway”. I’m done with the conversation and tell him so with all the calmness I can deliver. One last attempt to get through to him reveals his 30 year-old, cousin was just killed in Ft. Collins. I can’t tell if he is lying or telling me the truth–both could be the case–I chose to believe him, while attempting to practice patience, take a deep breath, and ask him how he is doing. (While still documenting the conference, of course…)

Quotations from students during class: I am disheartened by the tone and choice of words students sometimes choose to use toward teachers. Even though I work hard to set expectations at the beginning of the year, their choice in communication style seems to reveal something more than the learning environment of our class and school. What truly surprises me is that many of them do not think twice about the “you-language” and the demand for attention immediately. Don’t get me wrong–there are many wonderfully rich and respectful conversations throughout the day. Today, however, seemed to be one full of reactions, so these are the ones freshest on my mind. I am hoping it was just an off-day, but I am not so sure.

  • “Excuse me! [Demands my attention with a loud, booming voice while I am addressing the entire class] Why did I lose all my points yesterday? I wasn’t even talking.”
  • “I have a missing grade for my dialectical journal. That doesn’t seem right. My mom doesn’t think that seems right either. Can you check that and change it?”
  • “Hey! Weren’t you supposed to read to us?” (Asked across the room while I am attending to other students’ needs)
  • “Do you even know my name?” [Calling me out in front of the whole class] Note: I did pause before saying his name, but to my defense, I teach 160 kids throughout the day, and he was in the last class before school was dismissed.

I question the connection between stereotypes and their reactions. Are they intentionally choosing to act or speak in a certain way to fulfill an expectation? Or are their reactions completely natural? Writing this post seemed to help me sift through the various situations, and ultimately made me realize, that emotions (and stereotypes) do, unfortunately, play a role in education. And I am also tired from such a full day of them.

Maybe we are hitting the dip in the school year. Maybe we are all tired. Maybe technology is changing students’ communication style. Maybe these example are not at all connected.

Whatever it is, I am hoping for a fresh start tomorrow…positive emotions and neutral reactions from all.

 (Note: This was written at the end of the school day yesterday.)

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4 thoughts on “Students, stereotypes, and not-so-silent reactions

  1. Your calm and patience while dealing with such difficulties is admirable. I hope that today turns out much better for you and your students. They will soon realize Mrs. Peterson genuinely (I wish I could underline and bold that word) cares about them, no matter how many times they act disrespectfully. Keep up the very hard and very challenging work! It’s not for sissies!

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  2. Not quite sure how I came to your blog just now..I think you’d left a comment on another teachers blog (who had left a recent comment on mine) Anyway, just reading that post took me back to 2009-2010 school year. I was asked to teach a construction academy class 1/2 days. Started out with a dozen young men, by the end of the school year, I think there were 8. There was some of that kind of interaction during the year, fortunately for me, as a teacher I had the power to “hire and fire” (ie. could kick them out, because this was supposed to be college level courses, and not just a mandated high school series of classes.) the disrespect that I did encounter left me flustered, and a couple of times livid. I can’t imagine how drained you must feel emotionally @ the end of the day. DM

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    • Hi DM–Thank you so much for stumbling across my blog and for reading this post. I apologize for my own late response…It is very interesting to hear your own experiences and how they relate to my own. If you have any suggestions for not feeling so drained emotionally at the end of a teaching day, I am all ears! Would love to read about some of your experiences…Take care. Libbi

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  3. Just got a WordPress notice that you’d replied to my comment 😉 Thank you. quick story about those days when I was teaching the construction class. If you don’t care, I’ll just post a link to the account. It is a true story..all of it. what I didn’t mention in the blog post was the following summer after I taught the program, the very student I had the biggest run in with, was someone I hired to work on my construction crew. here’s that link: http://ialsoliveonafarm.wordpress.com/2012/09/13/the-story-of-the-mean-rooster/

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