Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Lesson from Aristotle

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." - Aristole

One thing I love to see in the morning is students walking into my class.  It is, however brief, a moment that they are all equal.  If you look at their faces, they can tell you, nonverbally, about everything they're thinking.  You can tell what kind of day they're going to have, how well they will participate, or whether they haven't taken their medicine.  Teaching 7th graders is even easier because along with their facial expressions are loud sounds of either joy or agony coming from their mouths.  Today, I knew, as soon my students walked in, it was not going to be the best day.  They all filed in quickly, as they know not being in the seat by the bell is almost punishable by death (joking, of course).  Most of them were smiling, asking me whether we would continue reading "Out of the Dust."  Their smiles faded when I said, "No."  Then it hit- like a smell as you're walking by a sewer.  All of the happiness that was in the classroom had by sucked out.  My tallest student, a young man with a typically cheery affect walked into the room with the scowl meaner then Mr. Scrooge's (before he met the ghosts).  "Good morning," my co-teacher said to him as he walked in the door.  He looked at her with a blank expression and proceeded to his seat in silence. 

"What in the..." I was thinking, but decided to let it go.  "Maybe something bad happened on the bus," I thought to myself and moved along with the lesson.  I quickly noticed by his less than usual attitude towards work that today was not going to be a good day.  I knew why he was mad.  This past weekend, after warning him numerous times about his off-topic conversations as his group was trying to conduct literature circles, I called home and expressed concern.  Now he was in trouble, and he thought not doing anything in class and ignoring his teachers was going to make me pay for it.  (Kids are so funny!)  Needless to say, before class was over, I decided to talk to him, one-on-one, to get him back on track.
I must preface this next part by saying that, since moving from my old school district, where students would attack teachers and other students (verbally and physically), to my new district, I believe that my students are angelic.  They are typical middle school students who might get a little off topic, act strangely, and exhibit crazy behaviors, but for the most part, are kind to me and each other, and have NEVER, EVER been disrespectful.  With that being said, I immediately started to see shades of my past school when conversing with this student.  While maintaining a fine line between respect and utter disrespect, he made his point quite clear- he thought I was being "unfair," and that is why he had an attitude.  He said it was "unfair" that he was the only one punished when another boy was talking just as much as he was. Parents and teachers alike know that "unfair" is a word that kids just have a magnetic draw to by the time they turn 13.  It is like a rite of passage- I remember going through it myself.  Despite my outward appearance of being completely displeased and intolerant of his tone, inside, I actually felt bad for him.  He was right, it wasn't fair.

What I verbally (and somewhat nonverbally) told him was to worry about himself. "Two wrongs don't make a right," "Life Isn't Fair," and all of the other cliches we heard in school and from our parents.  What I really wanted to say was, "Trust me, kid, I don't want to give that other kid chances.  I would like to kick his butt out of class daily, but his legal accommodations require otherwise," or "I know it seems like I am unfair to you, and I don't want to be, but it is because this other student has paperwork that states I HAVE to give him preferential treatment, even though it burns my heart and soul each time I have to turn a blind eye."  If he were older, perhaps he would understand.  If I didn't care about compromising my job, I would have told him the truth, that equality is not always fairness.  

In my few years of teaching, I have discovered that many things I thought I knew, many ways I thought things should be done, and many social expectations we hold are wrong (or not so black and white).  This would be one of them.  I used to think each student should be treated exactly the same, with the exact same expectations.  I quickly found out this is was not even a possibility.  When students have disabilities, behavior problems, or if they are just struggling learners, it would not be fair to treat all of those students equally, despite my initial desire to try.  The truth is, you do have different academic and behavioral expectations for your students.  Does it mean that you believe in one less than the other?  I don't think so because we each have our strengths and weaknesses- wouldn't you rather be judged for what you can do, rather than what you cannot?

I hope that one day, my student will look back on this day, and understand the true nature of his situation.  I hope he smiles when he realizes that he was being treated "unfairly," knowing that it means he was expected to be different and rise above.  I hope on that same day, he walks into a classroom, or a board room and smiles to replace the disdain of his morning today.

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