In my AP World History class, I teach many students who approach the AP level with anxiety. I encourage them to give this tough class their best. If they lack confidence, I ask them to trust me — after a year of practice, they will be ready for the AP Exam. In the Fall, I introduced the Document-Based Question and provided tips for how to write an essay response to it. After a few practice rounds with pieces of the overall process, I gave the students a sample DBQ. I said, “Try this one on your own, from beginning to end. I will be here to answer your questions and to help you.” The students chugged along, and I walked around, responding to a succession of many questions.
One of my students, Amalia, has a solid work ethic and a friendly personality. She’s generous and kind. I know she’ll go far. Yet her academic confidence suffers from years of playing catch-up as an English Language Learner. On the day of the DBQ writing workshop, she asked me questions. On her third question, I told her, “I’m glad you are asking a lot of questions.” She replied, “I’m sorry.” I said, “No! Don’t apologize. That’s why I’m here!”
This little conversation stuck with me. In my memory, I replayed the language I’d used to introduce the expectations for the DBQ workshop that day. I know that I told the class that the whole point of the workshop was that I wanted lots of questions to come my way. Amalia sometimes spaces out during instructions, but she could see me answering questions from all the other students. She knew that asking questions was a good thing to do. When she apologized for asking so many questions, she did it without thinking. It was a reflex.
I wondered about how many times in her past she felt like she bothered teachers, and maybe other authority figures such as her parents, by asking questions. She had grown up to see questioning as an imposition. This alarms me because I consider questioning a core process of life. I worried about not only Amalia but all my students, bogged down by all the interactions at school that made questioning a burdensome activity.
Over the years, teachers and other authority figures behaved toward Amalia in a way that produced her apology. The interactions, composed of thousands of little gestures, probably included “bad days” in which the authority figure got irritated by her. I wondered how many times, when I’m fighting off a cold or when I’ve come out of a frustrating teacher meeting, had my body language communicated impatience? High school students have been around long enough to read the signals that indicate “don’t bother me.”
Are teachers allowed to have bad days? I can’t imagine any human being capable of eliminating all bad days from their year. Yet teachers’ moods can dramatically affect the way their students react to not just the subject of one class, but to school overall. I have seen students so frustrated with one teacher that they begin to tank in all their classes. Over time, teachers’ bad days add up to a cloud of negativity that can follow students years into the future. A large part of becoming a master teacher is learning how to control (not conceal) your mood. Master teachers tell their students at the start of the period that they are having a hard day, and they recognize annoying student behavior as something that wouldn’t bother them on a normal day.
Struggling teachers often lack the resources and emotional support to improve their practice. Their daily mood tumbles ever downward. As those struggling teachers sink toward eventual exit from the profession, their pain radiates outward to their students. Before long, school simply becomes sad, with both students and teachers “doing their time.” Instead of school being a place that opens up the world for young people, it becomes a prison of meaningless worksheets. Everyone counts down the days to summer break. How many school years like this did Amalia have in her past? More than a few, I suspected. She’d internalized a school script that it’s always bad to bother the teacher.
In August, many high school teachers approach their students with what they feel is a “clean slate.” However, the students do not arrive with a clean slate. Students arrive with years of their particular experience of school. Some students approach school in August like it’s the next in 12 circles of hell, a gauntlet to be endured between weekends and breaks. Other students arrive with an eager optimism, full of new plans for success. Alongside their scripts for school in general, the students’ carry ready-made scripts according to teacher type. On the first day they will apply such a script to your class. Possibilities include: the flaky teacher who can’t find anything, the chill teacher with low expectations, the authoritarian teacher who crushes creativity, or the teacher with high expectations and high respect for the students. Until this year, I vastly underestimated how dormant school scripts continued to play out, no matter what I did or said. Those underlying scripts for school-in-general remain powerful and long-lasting.
How to counteract those scripts? Break them! The more that teachers can deviate from the humdrum of the expected school routine, the more their students get out of the experience. This can take the form of major disruptions, such as those described in The Power of Moments. However, it need not be that elaborate. I have found that one of the most pervasive expectations of the normal school script is that students don’t think teachers will talk to them individually. Every individualized conversation you have with a student breaks the script. I’m not talking about “where’s your homework?” but, rather, conversations that intentionally go deeper than routine check-ins. When teaching over 100 students, time management for this becomes challenging, if not impossible. The payoff, however, can be surprisingly large for just one five-minute individualized conversation every two weeks.
I hope that, one day soon, Amalia will stop apologizing for asking lots of questions.