Monday, July 4, 2011

“What Would Atticus Do?”

            Whenever I hit a dilemma in life, whatever the problem may be, I’ve always found resolution by asking one simple question, “What would Atticus do?” Some may think it silly that I base decisions and actions upon how I think a fictional character would respond, but what better guide than that of Atticus Finch?
            The other day, a friend brought an article from the local newspaper to my attention. The article’s topic deals with the high school drop-out crisis within San Antonio. A colleague I’ve worked with for many years made a very disturbing statement, inferring a link between the high drop-out rate among male minorities and the “high number of Anglo older female teachers trying to build relationships with these boys and they’re not connected. The teachers aren’t culturally responsive on how to meet the needs of these young men.”
            This statement struck such a discord within me that I’ve taken several days to process this generalization. You see, I am an “Anglo older female” teacher. I spent more than half of my teaching career working with minority students. I’m offended that some administrator could possibly believe that I couldn’t meet the needs of my students.  On one hand, administrations promote litanies on The Almighty Test Score, requiring teachers to disaggregate data in a multitude of ways. Eventually, individual students get lost in the numbers and highlighted codes. Yet somehow, classroom teachers hold onto the most important piece of information—the names, and faces, and needs of each student.
No administrator knows how often I sat one-on-one with a student to come up with an alternate assignment. I didn’t tell my principals every technique I used to reach troubled students. They didn’t know about a deal I made with one student a few years ago. This young man turned in nearly perfect work day in and day out—if it was an assignment completed during our class period. Any work assigned at home? He never did it. By the end of the first six weeks, I noticed his barely passing grade could have been an A if he would only do homework. A private discussion revealed that he worked six to eight hours each night and lived in his car. So I made a deal with him. He had to continue to do high quality work during class time, and he could forget about homework until he had a place to live. Of course, I talked with his counselor to make certain she knew his situation, but I never stepped into the administrator’s office. I didn’t realize that I should have made certain those in the office knew that I was “culturally responsive on how to meet the needs” of this young man. I can recount similar steps taken for many students for every year I taught, and I know other “Anglo older female teachers” whose devotion to their students’ successes makes my efforts look minimal.
Students drop out of school for many reasons, but I don’t believe the age or ethnicity of their teachers ranks among the top causes. Students come into the classroom carrying luggage loaded with unbelievable items. Yes, the “Anglo older female” may not have personal experiences living for six weeks in a car. We may never sit at the dinner table and do lines of coke instead of eating the evening meal. We may never deal with a parent in prison and all of our male relatives in gangs. We may never have been forced to kneel on gravel until our knees bled. However, I didn’t have to personally experience the horrors endured by my students to understand the compassion necessary for me to do my job. My age, race or socioeconomic status had nothing to do with my ability to stand in another person’s “shoes and walk around in them.”

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

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