Perception wins: What Natalie Munroe forgot about teaching

5 Mar

It frightens me how fragile perception is. It’s the difference between viewing someone as visionary or annoying. Honest or cruel.

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.

I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

I’m with Emily Dickinson on this one. As much as we want to, we don’t own our words. As soon as we let them escape from our lips, someone is already processing them. And not always the way we intended.

That’s not what I said!

That’s what you heard.

While I’ve used the excuse “so-and-so is too sensitive” to dismiss concerns over my words before, I’m learning to embrace the power of perception and take it more seriously. It is the force behind every action on earth. We react because we perceive. Sometimes we are calm enough to reevaluate our perceptions before we react but often we let passion get to us first. If this is true of level-headed adults, why are we surprised when hormone-infused teenagers don’t perceive (immediately) the nine levels of life before they respond? I’ve been spouting my perception mantra for a while now to my students. When they complain to me that another teacher scolded them for being disruptive, I often get some version of this:

“We were super polite/kind/courteous and he didn’t even give me a chance to–before he–that man is crazy!”

The gist of my usual reply: “If he perceived you as disruptive, respect that, and figure out why. Next time, enter the room differently.”

Since my former yearbook staffers had to enter classrooms to take students out for interviews, it was necessary they understood the intricacies of invading people’s space. As a teacher, I know how invasive the alternative approach can be. Kids sometimes walk in without introducing themselves then ask you for things. “Do you have a stapler/pencil sharpener/bottle of white out?” Or even worse, they demand things. “I need so-and-so.” My blood boils a little at that last one and I get very “I’m the boss here” and sometimes overreact. Here’s a classic example:

I’m in the journalism room. We’re on deadline. Student-I-don’t-know enters the room.

Perfectly nice girl: “I need to borrow a [photo] card reader, [student I know] said you guys have one.”

Me (don’t-have-time-for-mooching-right-now): “Um, yes, we do. Who are you and what do you need it for?”

Perfectly nice girl who now feels embarrassed: “Sorry, I’m [gives name], and I need this for a project. [Name of student who knows me and overestimates my generosity] said you wouldn’t mind.”

Me (realizing she’s been mislead by student who thinks I’m cooler than I am): “How long will you need it? Just a few minutes?”

Girl who shouldn’t listen to her friends: “Two nights. I promise I’ll bring it back when I’m done.”

Me (patience broken, tone decidedly unfriendly): “I don’t even know you, and even if I did, I couldn’t let you borrow something my students use every day, all day. We have a deadline!”

She apologizes and leaves sheepishly. I never saw her again.

After she left the room, my editor-in-chief notified me quietly, “you were mean to her.”  I probably launched into a defense citing the girl’s ridiculous request, but it doesn’t matter. All that girl will remember about me is how I made her feel when she left. She probably learned little else.

In case you missed it, a Pennsylvania high school English teacher vented about her “lazy whiners” on her personal blog, and has since been suspended. She’s been defending herself ever since. Though the most offensive comments have been taken down, the damage is already done. In a recent school board meeting, the district superintendent deemed it “impossible” for her to return in the fall after scheduled maternity leave, citing the “hostile educational environment” her blog comments created. She didn’t consider that her students might find her blog so she wrote like it was a group e-mail to friends and family. When I discussed this case with my journalism students, they quickly pointed out, “sometimes you call us whiners.” Which is true, I do. And they do whine at times. And sigh, grunt, glare, etc. to indicate their displeasure with thinking/learning. I added, “I’m also pretty sure I’ve said you were being lazy before, but are you disputing this?” They laughed and nodded their heads in confirmation of occasional (or frequent) whining/laziness.

So I asked them, why don’t you find that offensive while this teacher is getting suspended for essentially the same thing? They mentioned a variety of things such as my facial expressions, follow-up encouragement, and general proximity awareness of my motivating intentions behind those statements. The internet doesn’t convey tone. Here’s a summary of my students’ reactions to this news story:

Students: Did she give names of students or the school?

Me: No, it was anonymous

Same student: Not a problem. She has a right to vent. Free speech!

Me: So she shouldn’t have been suspended?

Students: No way! Maybe someone should have talked to her about it, but nothing else; she has every right to express herself.

Then they learned of a specific post Munroe wrote after being frustrated with the lack of applicable comments in the automated grading system. She decided to write what she wished she could put on report cards (intended as a joke).

Before I read the comments, one student expressed excitement: “This is going to be hilarious, I can’t wait for this. Will you make a list of your own?”

I then read some of the following hypothetical comments originally posted on the blog (which, again, Munroe intended to be humorous, and did not actually write on report cards):

  • “I hear the trash company is hiring.”
  • “I called out sick a couple of days just to avoid your son.”
  • “Just as bad as his sibling. Don’t you know how to raise kids?”
  • “Asked too many questions and took too long to ask them. The bell means it’s time to leave!”
  • “Nowhere near as good as her sibling. Are you sure they’re related?”
  • “Shy isn’t cute in 11th grade; it’s annoying. Must learn to advocate for himself instead of having Mommy do it.”
  • “Too smart for her own good and refuses to play the school ‘game’ such that she’ll never live up to her true potential here.”
  • “Am concerned that your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.)”

And the one that will probably haunt her forever:

“There’s no easy way to say this: I hate your kid.”

Students: “Whooooooa. Hate?”

Student 1: “That’s too mean. Why would she say that thing about the trash company?”

Student 2: “The trash company thing is a little funny but cruel.”

Student 3: “We all know teachers probably say this stuff when we’re not around but putting it on the internet, I don’t know about that.”

Student 4 from the back of the room: “I’d start my own blog about her after reading that.”

[Note retaliation tendency of teens. They perceive. They react.]

Me: What if she were your teacher and you read this?

Student 5: I’d have a hard time respecting her after that.

Student 6: I’d probably just stop trying in her class.

Me: What if I wrote that?

Student 7: In my next paper, I’d write about how wrong I thought you were to talk about me like that on the internet.

Me: But what if the comments weren’t about you specifically?

Student: (pause to consider) I don’t know, but I’d still be mad!

This is when the picture started to come into focus for me. My students (in a hypothetical scenario) took those comments personally. You probably think this song is about you, right?

Even though Munroe meant those comments generally, jokingly, caricature-like, that text-without-a-face changed their whole demeanor. These same kids who just minutes ago trumpeted the rights of free speech switched their whole perspective as soon as they perceived the comments as “below the belt,” a term Munroe used to describe her administration’s and the media’s tactics in handling this whole controversy.  As easy as it is to say “kids these days, always making it about them…,” that ignores the deeper reason why.

No matter what Munroe intended, what her students (and likely the parents and administrators) perceived was that she was against the kids. As much as I wanted to back her on this issue when I first starting reading about this in the news, when I finally found the blog comments that stirred everybody up, I was disappointed. Not because I don’t understand how easy it would be to say those things to a friend or spouse and it feel harmless. Not even because it was on the internet: clearly I’m doing the same thing here.

I’m upset because those comments weren’t funny!

Humor can ease a great deal of the weight of our words. But if you’re not funny, you come off as mean. It’s the same as the hilarious comedian who can broach controversial subjects because he’s making people laugh at the issue. Another comedian broaching the same controversial subject will be called sexist or racist because he’s not funny.

Munroe didn’t make me laugh and she was talking about my profession, something I have direct knowledge of. This surprised me since I find my job to be an endless supply of humor. Just today, one of my students told me I would make the perfect cartoon character. I now remember my husband deciding Olive Oyl was my celebrity doppelganger. I was offended by that originally; now I see it’s my destiny.

I will not attempt to speak for Munroe, but what I’ve garnered from reading her subsequent posts speaking to this controversy is that she started (as many teachers do) full of optimism and idealism and has let herself get beaten down by the constant barrage of unwilling participants in the learning process. Not to mention the parents, administrators, school board members, and legislators who have either been out of classroom too long or never stood in front of one to begin with: they have the ability to drive the life force right out of you.  And for that, she has my complete sympathy.

The job of a teacher is not for the weak of heart, mind, or soul. Teaching exposes every insecurity you ever had. And some you didn’t know about. The challenge is to live in constant self-evaluation and make adjustments that will make the road smoother, the path clearer.

Even among effective teachers, this task can feel Herculean. Those who fail to see through the red tape, the muck and mire of the day-to-day, and on to the bigger picture will find themselves frustrated daily, angry about everything, and generally unhappy. As positive as I am guilty of being sometimes, I completely understand that feeling of defeat. I’ve felt it more times than I can count. With defeat comes blame. We’re all guilty of this; our first reaction is to find something else that’s keeping us from succeeding. While we face factors that hamper our progress, that impede our passage, at least 50 percent is up to us. Half of what goes on in my classroom is in my control, the other half is due to outside factors. That includes when my students excel.

My students whose parents are skilled writers and take the time to tutor their children at home will excel no matter how I instruct them. My students who live in a home with little or no reading material and limited parental involvement will face bigger challenges, and probably feel more frustrated. While that’s a huge factor in why the latter group might not progress as rapidly as the kids with one-on-one parent time, it doesn’t doom them from improving their reading and writing level while in my class. 50 percent is in my hands.

Instead of complaining about why I’m not getting the results I want, if I adjust my teaching methods, I can get different results. This requires a level of sophistication and true introspection that teachers I admire have always employed. Looking to their example, instead of blaming the kids for everything, I’ve learned to figure out a new way to meet them where they are. Please do not confuse this with lowering standards. Every year I try to raise my standards while employing activities that help the kids reach them. I do not believe I reach every single kid. But I’ve learned that I can continue to reach more kids every year.

In my career, I’ve had memorable successes and tremendous failures. Whenever I come into contact with students I taught in those early years, I find myself apologizing to them: “I didn’t know.” Just like in those first years of teaching when we learn from our mistakes the most effective ways to teach, our students are learning from their mistakes how to, well, do everything. Every time I consider my students’ perspective, I feel empathy. And empathy helps me create more shining moments than giant flops in the classroom.

In further discussion on this news cycle, my students got to the heart of why they would be hurt by reading a teacher’s barbs online. They believe most teachers chose this career because they wanted to help kids despite how difficult they can be.

My mom (who didn’t have parents motivating her at home) once told me, “I don’t think you can give kids too many chances.” My dad and I disagreed at the time. But my dad and I both grew up with the full support of both parents. Suffering from motivation problems? They’d be there to push us along. My mom had to motivate herself. I don’t know about you all, but I disappoint myself all the time. What I hate is letting other people down. That motivates me.

Even with parents pushing you every step of the way, certain kids will still fail to find enough inspiration to “live up to their potential.” Maybe it’s confidence issues. Maybe it’s lack of interest. Maybe it’s that they just haven’t found their thing yet. My husband grew up with two loving and supportive parents and still earned the label “underachiever” throughout his school career. I read his high school English papers: I’ve seen the evidence. He wasn’t motivated by lofty educational goals; in fact, failing to meet those goals only made him feel bad about himself. It took him until age 25 to find his focus and now he’s thriving.

As teachers we often judge our students by our experiences in school. “I would never have tried _______ with my teachers!” We forget that as teachers, we embrace the academic environment: we chose a career in it. Our students or “customers,” as Munroe called them in one of her blog posts, are required to be in our classrooms. Sometimes they embrace this, but sometimes they resent it. That’s when we get heads on desks, heavy sighs, crappy projects, and blank stares. Unlike Munroe and others, though, this doesn’t make me worry too much about “kids these days.” This is nothing new. Consider these words famously attributed by Plato to Socrates (of Ancient Greece):

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

You see, while I wouldn’t say I was a tyrant, I remember myself much less favorably in high school than some might. I criticized everything about my teachers when I felt they were unjust or not on my side. I didn’t want to understand all the reasons why they were making my life miserable, I just wanted to stop having to learn chemistry. I was mostly polite and respectful, but even to my favorite teachers, I know I complained. And half the time I didn’t even mean it. I was a normal teenager who didn’t feel like doing tedious work every day; I was at times lazy. I bet I whined. But my teachers who got promising work out of me kept pushing me. Because I knew they cared about me, I pressed on. Eventually the things I used to hate or resist started to make sense to me and eventually I learned to live in details. While I needed a push to stay motivated sometimes, I was considered a “good student,” third in my class. Don’t be impressed, it was only out of 80 kids. If I had ups and downs, I can’t imagine what it takes to motivate kids who exist in worlds where simple survival is a victory.

My biggest challenge in teaching (and the thing that drives many people out of the profession) is to stay positive when no one expects you to. It’s not just the battle with the kids you have to win. It’s the battle with yourself that causes defeat. Natalie Munroe seems to have lost both this round.

“Optimism is true moral courage.”
Ernest Shackleton

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5 Responses to “Perception wins: What Natalie Munroe forgot about teaching”

  1. Jaime March 5, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    What a great perspective. Oh, how I wish you were teaching my children! The teenagers of SoFlo are blessed to call you their teacher. That notion of perception is a dirty little devil, especially in the schools. And thanks for the heads up about your blog on FB.

  2. Jeff April 10, 2011 at 3:49 am #

    It strikes me that your last thoughts on battling with yourself are the same thoughts I have frequently when parenting my kids. So much of what they do is predicated on how I am reacting to them. The better I handle myself, the better they react to me. This presents a real conundrum at times because it means that while I perceive them to be misbehaving, I usually am as much to blame as they are when something goes wrong. This is tough for me as the righteous parent to swallow, but it also provides an opportunity. While trying to change their actions, I also look to change my own. Such things – like articulation and perception, like speaking and listening – always turn out to be dialectical.

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