There are moments of teaching I like to remember – episodes of cleverness, compassion, success. And then there are the other moments, the ones that my thoughts tend to flee, the ones I prefer not to think about. This is a story about both.
One Friday after school, a student came to me with questions. As a 12th-grade transfer, she found herself struggling to catch up with the students who had already spent years in the crucible of our intense charter school. To graduate that year, she needed to take my Statistics class concurrently with Algebra 2. She was failing them both.
“How do you do this one?” she said, pointing to an algebra question on fractional exponents.
Let’s figure out what she knows, I thought. Tracking a student’s confusion usually means digging into their past, becoming a forensic educator, scraping through layers to find the old, fundamental skill that they never quite acquired. I began at the surface. “Well, what does ‘to the 7/2 power’ mean?”
“Hey, don’t be sorry!” I told her. It caught me off-guard to see this bubbly, spunky kid – the same one who teased me when I dropped markers in class – reduced to shame over nothing she had done wrong.
We played around on the whiteboard for a while, me posing questions, her answering, me cracking bad jokes to put her at ease. Soon enough I found the missing stone in the arch. She didn’t know what a square root was. No one had ever taught her – at least not in a way that got through.
“Okay!” I said. “Then that’s what we need to work on. Here, I think you’ll like this.” Having seen her cleverness – she had a knack for skepticism, and had quickly pegged the personalities of me and her new classmates – I knew she’d absorb the concept swiftly. I began writing on the board, and turned around to ask a question – but found her in tears.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “We can keep going in a second, it’s just… this has always been so hard for me, and to think that all that time…” She trailed off.
After a moment, we carried on. She got the problem. And a few weeks later, she left our school. The curriculum was too much, too fast, too late – she wished she’d started with us younger, and we wished her the best in finishing her degree. I saw her once the following spring, through the window of a city bus. She saw me too, and we exchanged a small wave and a big smile.
I like to remember that afternoon. It consoles me to think that, for at least one student, I provided a brief catharsis, that in my bumbling way I managed to disarm her self-doubt, to empty out some of the venom that had seeped into her system. I imagine her mathematical career as an unhappy one, marked by castigation and embarrassment, so that she lost track completely of the truth that she was a bright and perceptive kid, capable of anything. I like to believe that, if only for an hour, I made her feel as smart as she is.
I say that I “like” to believe this, but really, I need to believe it. It’s the only antibiotic I have against the disease that’s eating me alive: the feeling that, every day, I do the opposite for many kids. That when I sprint through algebraic steps on the board, outpacing their ability to follow along, I make them feel stupid. That when frustration and impatience creep into my voice, because they’re asking about something I thought I had taught adequately (even though I clearly hadn’t), I make them feel stupid. That when I pass back failing quizzes unceremoniously, without pausing to offer advice or reassurance, without any expression of human sympathy to counterbalance the implicit message of “you are a failure,” I make them feel stupid. That those shining moments of compassion are vastly outnumbered by moments of coldness and neglect, moments when my eye is so glued to the clock or the calendar that I overlook the human beings right in front of me.
I like to remember the day when I provided a ray of light, because I know that too many days I hang like a raincloud.