In the Humanities class I co-teach, we’re currently exploring Restorative Justice as an alternative to punitive discipline and determining how we could institute it in some way at Carolina High. One fundamental component of RJ is building community and social-emotional skills by circling up. This past Tuesday, the last day of school before Thanksgiving break, I decided to use a form of circle time to practice oral communication and a spin-off of the circle: a thankful semi-circle.
Students were given a topic based off an old Mohawk tribal tradition giving thanks to ancestors and the natural world. Groups of eight students gathered at the front of the room and one by one went up to the podium to share something they were grateful for in relation to their topic. Among grandparents, water, trees, and the earth one group had the word “birds.”
Deshawn* confidently stepped up. “Y’all, I am thankful,” he looked down, pausing for dramatic effect, and once again made eye contact with the audience, “for the birds.” He grinned. “You see, one time there wa’ this big ol’ hawk, and I be throwin’ rocks at it. Throwin’ and throwin’,” – he made throwing gestures with his hands – “and it start chasin’ me. Boy that bird made me run FAST. But I outrun it. It made me faster, so it’s all good.”
Marquis shared a similar anecdote. “Preacher Marquis come to tell y’all an important message. Those birds, we gotta appreciate them now. They be making some gooooood fried chicken for my belly.”
Okay, so they didn’t take the intention of the lesson too seriously, but I had a hard time stifling my giggles. They pulled from their gospel church roots, making the most of the chance to be center stage, and they certainly got their oral presentation points.
To model the semi-circle expectation, I had stepped up to the podium at the begining of class and shared my favorite Maori quote.
“What is the most important thing in the world? It is the people, it is the people, it is the people. People are always what matter most to me. This is my first year teaching at Carolina, but I want you to know that I am grateful for you. You keep me on my toes, you keep me laughing, you keep me engaged. You can be SO frustrating too —
–an interjection from one girl — “Okay Miss Compton, just throw us under the bus like that…” —
–hold on,” I say, holding up a hand. “That’s big fax, and you know it.” I smile. “But even when you do, I still love you, and I am certainly counting you among my blessings this year.”
I felt a few tears building up in the corners of my eyes, and I think we’re getting to a point in the year where they know I meant what I said. My kids, as I call them, are silly and fun, and they just need some adult mentors who will extend grace and mercy, to spur them on toward more than they believe they can do. I’m grateful I get to play a role in that process.
However, teaching itself is not always fun. Mr. Kellett and I teach the SAME 90-minute class three times a day. That’s great from a planning standpoint, but can get so monotonous. There have been plenty of days that I leave disheartened; it’s usually the days when I take the students’ decisions to goof off and not do what I ask personally.
I had a post-it note on my desk senior year of college that I jotted down from some reading I came across: Focus on the value, the rightness of the work itself, not the results. My principal also gave me a piece of advice over the summer: Love the kids for who they are, not who you want them to be. Lately, I’ve clung tightly to those two quotes. To be clear, assessment results and learning outcomes do matter in education. But a lot of my students are failing, and I can’t totally carry that burden for them.
They’re not all rock stars. Some of them have such bad attitudes and behavior issues that my fleeting animal desire to strangle them seems justified. Many of them are depressingly setback, grade-levels behind where they should be. They waffle between a fixed mind-set of apathy and a growth mind-set of potential. And here I have met them, waffling myself between many of the same emotions – good days where I see their minds at work and their agency applied, bad days where I’d like to curl up in a ball and question why the heck they don’t listen or do what they ought.
Now that I’m on break and able to reflect and share some stories with my family, I realize how deeply entangled my heart has become with these students.
I let them teach me their new slang, like “Big Ol’ Fax” – meaning something is definitely true – and “Bet,” as in “you bet, okay, I’ll do that.” Sometimes I let them get away with not doing work for five minutes if it means I’m five minutes deeper into developing a mutual relationship of trust and respect with them.
They don’t know how to eat well, and when they return from lunch with a montage of junk food, I let them make fun of my nutritious health habits. “Miss Compton, you call that a salad? Those leaves are too green, and WHERE is the ranch dressing?! Here, lemme show you what a REAL salad is.” Sarah pulls up Google images to a picture of an iceberg lettuce ham and egg some kinda nasty, with heavy cream dressing. “Now THAT’S a salad.”
I have to roll my eyes at the ridiculous ways they fail to manipulate me too. Like cheating without even changing the Google doc of editing history from the previous person who actually did the work. Or submitting the exact same copy of an assignment. Ty’rone actually checks his grades pretty regularly and is constantly trying to find easy ways to get his grade up without doing much of anything. Check out this email exchange:
T: Can you open up the chapter 7 reflection question please
Me: You should be good to go now
T: On the chapter 7 reflection question it says i have submitted the number of attempts
Me: That’s because you have and I have already graded it. Read The Kite Runner more accurately in the future so you can get a higher score.
T: Oh I didn’t know cause you said to read the book and take it over
(Note, LIES. I said to read the book; there was no mention of getting a re-do on the assignment.)
Two days later my boy submits an electronic copy of a different assignment saying he turned in a hard copy on Friday. He so did not. Next email on Monday:
I turned in the bulleted summary in the basket but you put in two zeroes for it
No, you turned it in yesterday; I have since graded it and put the hard copy in your folder. You got a zero for agency though, because you did not turn it in on Friday.
The agency grade is often associated with effort and turning work in on time. I had been very clear that the small daily assignment was due at the end of class on Friday. The joys of keeping up with all those nit-picky grades…
In homeroom, which is the last 15 minutes of school every day, I’ve decided to start enjoying my time with the students rather than just taking attendance and finishing up some end-of-the-day housekeeping. I’ve pulled some old camp games out of my sleeve, like chair switch, which got dangerously rambunctious one day, or bottle toss, where we have to keep several empty plastic bottles going in the air in a certain order. Regardless how the majority of the day preceded, it makes the end a happy note, and I’ve enjoyed that.
Jason Kellett, my co-teacher, has also continued to be such a good teammate. He keeps me calm and maintains perspective while also usually letting me be the metaphorical captain, direct the day-to-day plan on our classroom ship. We get along, and that is a huge blessing, because we spend more waking time together than he spends with his wife, or I with my roommate. Your co-teacher could make or break a year of teaching, and I’m thankful we work, that we have a healthy dependence on each other and play off of each other so well.
Last week one student asked me in a dramatically whiny voice, “Miss Compton, why’d you give me an F on this?”
Mr. Kellett interrupted with an extra dose of exaggeration before I could make some weak comeback.
“Woah woah woah. Miss Compton, did you GIVE Jose an F, or did he EARN it?”
“Thanks for making that point Mr. K.” I gave a side glance to Jose. “That was earned, fo’ sho.”
I walked away, then turned around and smiled, showing that I both meant it, but it’s okay. There are always fresh starts. I’m not actually mad.
“Miss Compton,” Jose’s neighbor comments, “why you always gotta be smiling like that??”
I love my smile, and that the kids notice that I do smile a lot, even when I’m not really feeling it. Sometimes I glue it on despite the fact that all is not well, just because it really does make the whole situation seem brighter.
Jason texted me as I drove home to Charleston a couple days ago. Here’s a censored version of his sailor’s mouth text:
Hey. I think maybe we’re good teachers.
I think the code we may have cracked that works for us is that we simultaneously:
1-truly give a ____, while:
2-not giving a _____.
(#1 about the kids; and #2 about what people think)
He sent this right after the talent show we both performed in on Tuesday, and I think the latter comment especially applied to how we were willing to be goofy for the sake of the kids.
Hunter Burgess, my closest teacher friend and overcommitted workaholic, emceed, but he also asked if I would dance in the show if he was my partner. Kellett took a bow after an awesome guitar solo rendition of Flight of the Conchords’ “Most Beautiful Girl in the Room” and then I was up.
“Miss Compton, what are you doing?” Burgess asked, our script pre-rehearsed.
“Well if Mr. Kellett was going to perform, I felt like I should be on stage too. We’re co-teachers after all”
“So what’s your talent?”
“Dancing, obviously.” I move my shoulders and hips in a very white girl way.
“Well do you have a partner?”
“I mean, no…
Yo Burgess! Would you dance with me?”
Jay Sean’s “Down” started playing and Hunter and I got dancing, pulling a few swing stunts and leg lifts. We held our own, but Shay-rone, one of Burgess’ students, stole the show, as we intended. When the rap started, he sauntered onto stage singing and the crowd went wild. The rest of the song we just let him and his natural killer dance moves burn the floor. We won the people’s choice award for best faculty talent, and I let Shay-rone keep the trophy.
This morning Mama showed me this video, demonstrating the ways that privilege may not be something we can control, but certainly has given those that have it head starts in life.
I couldn’t help but think of my kids at Carolina, and all the ways they do not have the myriad two steps forward I got. For many of them, there is no assurance that cell phones will be serviced next month. They didn’t have an at-home, built-in tutor of a parent growing up. The next meal is not necessarily guaranteed. They often have to help pay for bills.
Yes, they also have choice, to decide to overcome the obstacles life has dealt them rather than blame them as an excuse, but the clip certainly did make me grateful for the many, many blessings I have experienced from birth.
This Thanksgiving, with my students’ circumstances standing in contrast, I have a heightened recognition of all the privilege bestowed upon me – the consistent support of my parents, the overabundance of provision, my good health and the access to care when I need it, the love of my siblings, and the way I am finding a home in Greenville. But as I told my students in that semi-circle, I am most grateful for them, for being able to work at Carolina High and being a part of their lives.
*All student names changed