I’m embarrassed to admit this in a blog for teachers, but I once had to hire a tutor to help my daughter, Jodi, with geometry. She was struggling with this subject in her sophomore year of high school. I understood her frustration. I only had to think back to my own first encounter with geometry. Eventually I managed to squeak out a decent grade, but if the teacher had graded me on long-term comprehension, I would have earned an F.
I asked Jodi’s geometry teacher for suggestions and she gave me the name of a tutor. After Jodi’s first one-on-one lesson with her new tutor I optimistically asked her how it went. This is an exact quote of her response.
That woman had the thickest ankles and the driest elbows of anyone I have ever met.
I swear to you that is exactly what my daughter said to me. She gave me a report on the status of the woman’s ankles and elbows. I was stunned into momentary silence. Then I responded to her in the same tone and manner she had just used with me.
You know Jodi, I thank God every day that I teach young kids and not teens. Please God, don’t ever make me work with teens. I didn’t ask you about her ankles or elbows. Did she help you understand anything about your geometry?
Her response? She just looked at me. Apparently I didn’t deserve a response.
Do you know what I learned from this? Don’t ever make your fears public, because the heavens will hear you and set you up for a great joke. Within a year and a half of this conversation I was hired to teach seniors. Yep. I started teaching seniors the same year that my daughter was a senior, thankfully not in the same building. (The photo above is Jodi’s senior picture).
This new job “opportunity” came about pretty suddenly. I told Jodi about my job change, but she didn’t listen very closely. Listening to what her mom was actually saying wasn’t high on her priority list during that phase in her life. I was terrified and frankly reluctant to take this position, but my youngest daughter needed better medical insurance to battle cancer and the new job provided that, so I signed a contract and took a leap of faith. On my first day I said to Jodi
Well, today is my first day of teaching seniors. Wish me luck.
She was completely stunned with this news. Ah-ha. I knew she didn’t listen to me.
WHAT? You’re going to be teaching seniors? Are you serious?
Her tone and body language told me I didn’t stand a chance of success. And furthermore, I didn’t have anything of merit to teach a senior.
My response to her?
Well, look at it this way, Jodi. My job should be easy. Seniors already know everything.
I hate to admit it, but she was right about one thing. It was a really shaky start. In my 42 years of full-time teaching, I thought about quitting the profession only twice. Once was in my second year of teaching when I ran into some serious health problems. The second time was in my 24th year, when I began teaching seniors. They came close to doing me in…maybe even killing me off.
But you know what? I ended up loving teens. I liked their humor. I liked their optimism. I loved their passion about what they believed in. I learned to overlook their moods and found ways to joke them out of their occasional surliness. I got used to telling the boys to pull up their pants and telling the girls to cover their cleavage. My life is now full of former teen students who are now my friends. When you teach a senior it takes them only one year to begin to appreciate you. It is a fast turn around. As soon as they leave for college, they immediately understand how much you really taught them.
I think I had another advantage. I actually lived with a senior when I began teaching seniors. I absolutely knew how much they didn’t know about life. I knew I had only one year to teach them all the important stuff. I knew I had to teach them more than the academics of my field and I did. That doesn’t mean I didn’t teach them academics. I did. But I knew I had one short year to teach them so much more.
Once I was in the middle of a very ticklish conference with a teen girl who was on a bad path. The guidance counselor was with me. When the mother of this girl arrived it explained quite a bit about the poor choices the kid was making. The girl had no role model for success. We did everything in our power to explain our point of view, but unfortunately we didn’t feel like we made much headway during this conference. After the teen and her mom left the conference area, the guidance counselor looked at me and said something very wise.
The world will teach them what we cannot.
I never forgot that statement. The truth of it rocks me. The world is going to teach them things that we cannot. And many of those lessons will hurt. It made me try harder to teach them any life lessons I could while they were still in a somewhat safe environment, inside the classroom walls.
Maybe Jodi even had a point about focusing on ankles and elbows. Both of those joints are pivotal points in our bodies. That’s what the teen years are all about, pivotal points. Our role as teachers is to help students make their best choices during those pivotal points in their lives, not just memorize facts from a textbook. Some of those pivotal points come while they are with us. But many will come after they are gone from our classrooms. What can we do now to help them maneuver those pivotal moments later?
Just for the record, my teaching life took me in such a circuitous route that more than a decade later, I actually ended up teaching in the same building as the woman who had tutored my daughter. Her name was Nancy. She was a petite woman, of normal weight whose ankles appeared to be in perfect proportion to her body. I didn’t do any close checking, but her elbows seemed fine to me also. Believe me, I never once told her what my daughter had said about her. It was my gift to her as a fellow teacher.
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