An Exceptional Class

Earlier today I had to have one of my first conferences with a student after class. For now, we’ll call him Axel. Over the course of the class I told Axel to stop having side conversations and listen to his peers when they are speaking four times. For me, I should only have to say it once; four times is clearly over the limit. So I calmly walked over—knowing that we are still in the honeymoon phase of the year—and politely told him that his behavior was unacceptable.  Axel seemed shocked that this happened. “What do you mean, I did my work.” This is a response I’ve heard countless times over my four years of teaching. Each time I hear this response, I cringe. Each time I think about what this response tells me about the state of values in the United States, I hang my head in shame.

In the midst of a recession or depression, a nation will ultimately look inward and evaluate what actions and values led it into a financial crisis. It comes as no surprise then that recently in the New York Times opinion writers have been writing a plethora of articles about American values.

David Brooks recently wrote an article on the Gospel of Wealth and focused on a young preacher by the name of David Platt. Platt is a pastor at a mega-church in Alabama where he leads a group of individuals who seemingly have a great deal of wealth at their disposal.  In his preaching, Platt began chastising his followers for chasing material goals instead of focusing on God. To better their lives, and presumably demonstrate their faith and obedience to God, Platt encourages his followers to “live like they make 50,000 a year”.

Thomas Friedman wrote a similar article where he compared the methods the Greatest Generation used to overcome challenges to the methods we use today to overcome challenges. Essentially, he argues that the Greatest Generation made the necessary sacrifices to overcome the monumental challenges they faced, while today’s generation prefers to lay the blame on somebody else rather that make sacrifices and assume responsibility. We see that in education, where a teacher can do everything correct and still some students will not be motivated. Politics also sheds light on this issue, as Democrats and Republicans blame the other party rather than create solutions to the problems.

Axel’s comments reflect these values to which Friedman and Brooks allude. By “doing their work” students believe that they have done their part for that day. In Axel’s case, he believes that as long as he listened to my lecture and took notes, he was doing his work. To listen to his peers was extra work that he did not see as important. In the course of our conversation, I relayed to him how important it is to learn from your peers and how he is getting less out of life right now than his classmates. He responded to this admonishment by rolling his eyes, sighing heavily, and saying “I got you”. This didn’t instill a great deal of confidence that in me that he actually gets me, or it for that matter.

Last year I sat with a group of teachers to discuss Axel’s academic prospects with him. We asked him the simple question, “What do you want to do?” Apparently, Axel wanted to either be a professional football player or a professional baseball player. Although I was not one of his teachers at the time, I leaned forward and asked him a couple simple questions. I started with the obvious, “Are you on a team?” He played on the block with his friends. I followed that up with, “Do scouts come watch you play on your block?” He wasn’t quite sure what that means. I then politely told him that at this point, him being a junior in high school, if he wasn’t being scouted by colleges or professional teams, he had no chance of playing a professional sport. I crushed his dreams.

Ask struggling students in high school what they are going to be when they graduate, many of them will have dreams similar to Axel.  I don’t blame the students.  A value that students today are exposed to on an every day basis is exceptionalism.  According to our society now, everyone can become a celebrity. Thanks to youtube, you can become famous by filming yourself do something incredibly stupid and posting it on the internet. After watching the Jersey Shore, you realize you can become famous by becoming a caricature of yourself and offering your friend a sandwich while he “smushes” in the bed next to you. In sports we see extremely gifted athletes get multimillion dollar bonuses for going to one year of college and being better at putting a ball through a hoop than the other guys. This culture of exceptionalism can also be found in our classrooms, where we tell our students that they can all go to an Ivy League school and be whatever they want.

While I support encouraging students to follow their passions and strive to reach whatever goal that they have for themselves, I also believe we need to continually work with students to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses to set feasible goals. If a junior in high school has a 68% grade average still thinks that they are going to go to Harvard—and I’m the first one to tell them that it’s just not going happen—that’s a problem.

As a teacher, I still need a system of values to instill in my students. By the time students reach me in junior and senior year, the American Dream and the Gospel of Wealth may not be realistic. 50,000 a year is a dream that some of my students may never be able to attain, especially if they do not have a realistic plan beyond graduating high school. With this in mind, I hope that at the end of the day we as a society can refocus on living a good life.

When I graduated college, I judged my friends who stayed close to home and settled down. I fell into the idea that I needed to do something exceptional with my life. So I moved across the country to New York City, joined Teach for America, and started writing a blog. I envisioned myself being a champion in the classroom, fighting the achievement gap every day and taking my blows. Now, I realize that I simply want to live a good life. And write a blog.

Martin Luther was once asked by a recent Christian convert what the new Christians should do with their lives. Luther asked the man, “What is your trade now?” The man replied, “I make shoes”.  Luther responded to him, “Then make the best shoes you can and sell them at a fair price”. To live a good life we do not need to do anything exceptional. This is a message that I can sell to my students.

Regardless of what my students do, whether they become a doctor, lawyer, janitor, garbage man, or sales clerk, they can still live a good life. While the standard of living may change, they can still continually strive to be the best that they can be regardless of where they start. Those who end up as sales clerks will have a more difficult climb, but they can continue to do their work well which increases their chances of advancement much more than trying to catch lightning in a bottle following the values of exceptionalism.

I’m hoping that I can lead a good life. Each day I go to work and try to be the best teacher I can be, improving from the previous day. I try to treat people the way they deserve to be treated. In working with others, I try to suspend judgment, try to find the assets that others bring to the table, try to understand their perspective, and focus on what I can and can not control. In Teach for America we call those things the diversity competencies; I just call them doing what is right. I fail at these things constantly. I have my vices and constantly make mistakes. I’ve hurt others and been a complete ass at times. I’ve sleepwalked through days at work. I recognize that I’m a continual work in progress who has some deep issues that I need to deal with, but I’m happy with who I am and what I’m doing. This comes from trying to live a good life, and this is a value I want my students to gain from being in my class.

John Harlow

1 Comment

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One response to “An Exceptional Class

  1. Gene

    What strikes me most about this article is that it resonates the true message of this blog. The problem with Teach for America is that it has become too focused on pedagogical achievement–in its most unadulteratedly empirical form–and has lost track of the individual struggle of the teacher. Teaching is hardly about perfection, and exceptionalism in the classroom is not about “significant gains,” but interpersonal gains with each student, be it personally or academically.

    In other words, I don’t really see the different between Mr. Harlow’s students proclaiming their NFL Draft signing bonus and school administrations boasting simple Regents goals for the upcoming year. Goals without hard work or purpose are empty and insignificant. Exceptionalism needs to be redefined, for it’s not about position or title, but the interconnectiveness of our lives that truly defines our place. The lesson learned here is that there is perfection in the imperfect moments in our lives. Lest we forget that the teacher’s experience is one of trial and error, the “lightness” that we here at the ULOT stand by so firmly.

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