Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Life As A Dog

Cinder Bridge--"Everything Changes" (mp3)

There are those many, many things that I have not figured out, will never figure out, but here's one that I'm pretty comfortable with right now.

Each morning, when my little Chihuahua, Taco, wakes up (and crawls from underneath the blankets and comforter of the bed where he sleeps), he is ecstatically happy to see whomever he has been sleeping with. His tail wags instantly, he yawns and stretches pushes into people to rub his back and wake his muscles and wrestle a little bit and pretend to bite and enjoy present company until present company can drag out of bed and take him outside.

This, of course, is not unique to Taco. All well-treated dogs are happy to see the people that they live with at the start of the day or after any separation.

What I've discovered is that this works with students. To be the dog. To be the fresh, excited, affectionate companion every time I walk into the classroom. To every single day be "on," to be fascinated by their worlds and, even, withholding of judgements as much as possible. To what end, you ask? Is this a pathetic attempt to be the buddy of every high school senior in the school?

I don't think so. I hope not. Because the great discovery I've made, for me at least, is that it is not an act. I am not pandering to their musical tastes or tales of rebellion or critical remarks about other teachers. I am not tolerating their crude remarks about girls or misguided perspectives on Affirmative Action. I am not trying to be on their side. No, I've just reached a point, and, admittedly it has taken some time, where I am excited and am easily affectionate and am fascinated by them. I am fully enjoying their not-fully-developed-adults company.

And that means sorting with them through petty likes and dislikes, racial indiscretions (the kind that leave a student proclaiming, "I am not a racist!"), the trying-out of gender stereotypes, the meannesses, judgements, and cuts they make on their teachers and fellow students, Democrats and the alternatively-lifestyled. Yes, it's a kind of tolerance on my part, but not a passive tolerance. I don't agree, but I'm not trying to get them to agree with me, either. It means that, rather than ending up in verbal combat, I can swallow a cutting retort to a position that offends me. But, be clear, it does not mean allowing inappropriateness, narrowmindedness, foolishness to go unchallenged. Because that cutting retort that was swallowed is replaced with a question or a hypothetical or an allegory, but I am not trying to direct students to the answer, I'm not trying to make the obvious link to the other situations for them. Leave it out there; let one of them draw the conclusion. Because the relationship in the classroom is far, far more important than being right, being smarter, being verbally quicker.

Do you really think a dog wants to drag himself up every time he gets called? Does he want to "go for a ride" knowing full well, from experience, that he's going to end up locked in the car in a parking lot somewhere while everyone else is inside a building where all of the good smells come from? But he always does, he always rolls the dice, because being with his people is more important than the unpleasant parts of being the family dog.

I'm trying to be that dog. Regardless of grades, skipped classes, ADHD, sulking, forgotten books, unread assignments, sneaky cell phones, athletic egos, broken assurances, hormones, I want them to know that I'm am happy to spend time with them. My friendship is not conditional. It shouldn't be.

And, no, this is not about rigor. Let the material be hard, let the assignments be challenging, let the deadlines be firm. That does not mean that I or you or any of us needs to play the hardass for hardass' sake, though, does it? The world is full of Tiger Moms, Helicopter Moms, Drill Sergeant Dads, My Way Or The Highway Pops. And, I know some of my own colleagues revel in "tough love," certain that it is the only kind of love an adult can give to a child, perhaps the only kind of love they were given.

But that isn't me. I've found that you can fail a student and still have him come hang out in your office the following semester, can let him know, through that daily, dog-like joy every time he walks through your door, that, yes, in the narrow confines of the class, his work was inadequate, but that you recognize he has more to offer. Funny, it's easier to pull off with students. I'm pretty sure most other relationships don't quite work that way. Woof.

In an act of professional suicide, longtime reader CinderKeys took on uber-Rock Critic Dave Marsh to defend my Escovedo post. The least I can do is to post one of her songs!


Sara C said...

Allow me to go all teenage girl on you here with a simple OMG. I have never thought of what I do from this perspective, but I love it. I'm sure I'm not always successful, but that "on" factor does make such a difference. And I love the reminder that it doesn't mean a sacrifice of rigor. Love it! Thanks.

Daytimerush said...

Love! May you be an inspiration to others!

troutking said...
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John said...

I've watched you teach enough over the years to know that what you're saying rings true; I'd challenge you a bit on the timeline. It's always struck me that your approach with kids has been 'dog-like'. Thanks for an inspiring and challenging gauntlet for those of us who work with adolescents.

Billy said...

It's not rocket science why you're one of the most beloved teachers on this campus. Nor is it smoke and mirrors. You were (and, OK, still are) one of the most influential teachers from whom I've ever had the good fortune of learning.

That duly acknowledged, I humbly submit that one Bob in a mix of teacher personalities and styles is a powerful and effective thing. But a day full of Bobs teaching me class after class... I wonder if it loses its effectiveness. Other teachers whom I consider life-changing in a positive way had differing approaches than yours, and all of them worked well despite their differing approaches.

It's the variety and mixture of personalities and deliveries that makes education so awesome.

Bob said...

So a colleague and I were talking today about a younger colleague who can't get past the fact that one or more students lied to him. My angle is, well, you've got to realize that kids lie. Adults lie. You don't have to like it, you call him on it, you punish him for it, but you don't hold it against him forever, though you may take him with a grain of salt, and you can still like him plenty and enjoy his company.

cinderkeys said...

People are more willing to hear opinions they disagree with from someone who doesn't shove said opinions down their throats. Students are no different from anyone else in that regard.

Thanks for posting our song, BTW. You can request stuff at our gigs anytime! :)