Why I’m Jealous Of The Pencil Sharpener

Yesterday I wrote about a moment in my English class where a boy refused to be bested by my passive-aggressive pencil sharpener.  This event not only stuck in my mind because it was funny, but it gave me a feeling that I never thought I’d feel before: jealousy of my pencil sharpener.  I know this sounds like I’ve fallen to a new low, but let me explain.

Jerry, the subject of yesterday’s story, averages a low B in my class.  He could easily earn an A, but instead he spends class leaned back in his chair and complains to me about the work.  Half of the time he doesn’t look engaged, and the quality of his work leaves much to be desired.  The day he decided to tame my pencil sharpener he was motivated, focused, and engaged.  The sharpener gave him a challenge and frustrated him and put his pride at stake.  Jerry didn’t give up, nor did he give a half-hearted effort, and in the end, he succeeded. Granted, what he was doing wasn’t rocket science, but it is why he struggled so hard for the sharpener, but not for me, that gives me pangs of jealousy.

Building student motivation is a struggle for all teachers.  In a perfect world students would show up to our classrooms ready to learn– excited to learn rhetoric, analyze theme, practice using semi-colons, and write essays.  They would arrive with their homework completed, armed with thoughts to add to discussion, their textbooks, paper, and writing utensils.  For many students this is the reality. They work hard, learn the material, and really want to improve and do well.  For many others, they are content doing the very bare minimum and, some, nothing at all.  And it’s not like teachers are ignorant about what motivates students.  Every book about teaching will explain that motivation arises from building connections with students, stating lesson objectives, building lessons around their interests, showing how the information connects to what they have learned, will learn, and their life, providing timely and constructive feedback, being enthusiastic, and the list goes on.

All of these are great strategies and contribute to the overall ambience and expectations in the classroom.  But they’re not a panacea for motivating each and every student.  The tricky thing about motivation is that it’s personal and individual.  How was I to know that Jerry had a great motivation to work my pencil sharpener?  In reality, Jerry’s motivation is the least of my worries.  He does his work, asks questions, and we have a good rapport.  It’s the others I worry about.

One student of mine from a few years ago stands out.  I’ll call him Ford.  Ford was a lovable knucklehead who was failing all of his classes– including PE.  In my class he goofed off, wore his hat even though I asked him to take it off, never did his work.  His only motivation it seemed to me was to write rap lyrics and get me to call him by his “tag” name (his graffiti nom de plume).  In order to motivate him, I bantered with him, refocused his attention, stayed one step ahead of his antics and created lessons where he could write rap lyrics in connection to our readings.  We got along, but there was nothing on the production end although many of the other boys enjoyed writing and performing their rap songs.

One day there was meeting after school with his counselor, teachers, admin, and his father.  Since I had him in during the last period, I felt it was my responsibility to get him there.  He refused to go, told me his dad wasn’t going to show up, and worried that he would miss his ride home.  To convince me, he called his dad and had him tell me that he wouldn’t be there.  His father explained that something came up “last minute”, but he did tell me that Ford walked home everyday. Ford was shocked when I asked his dad if I could drive his son home after the meeting; he agreed.  With no out, Ford walked with me to the conference room.

The meeting was a revelation.  The only one who really seemed to be fighting for Ford to get back on track was the AP; everyone else seemed disengaged.  The AP spoke frankly to him about his behavior and the resources on campus to help him.  She peppered her talk with profanity, which he responded to.  She seemed to be the only one who had a modicum of his respect.  As he and I walked out of the meeting, I developed a plan of how he could be successful in my class.  He constantly “lost” his work, so I gave him a notebook to keep in class.  If his hat was near him, he would put it on; we agreed to keep in the cupboard during class.  We had a research project on American authors coming up, but I knew that he would be bored by them.  I agreed that he could research Tupac Shakur.

The result was astounding.  He started doing his work and following directions.  He proved that he had the skills to write and research.  He decided that he didn’t want to research Tupac, but Lil’ Wayne instead.  I told him that he had to build his case for Lil’ Wayne by showing me that he had info about him and a true desire to research him.  The next day he brought me a file folder of printed articles and song lyrics highlighted and organized.    Everyday as he walked into class he told me of new information and connections he discovered.  Even my over-achievers were impressed.

I wish I could finish this story with accolades of his finished product, but there was no finished product.  He was expelled.  You can imagine my level of disappointment.  I was disappointed in him for not transferring his good behavior to his other classes.  I was disappointed in his father who showed that his son was not a priority.  I was disappointed in his other teachers for not cultivating an area of success for him (this is pure assumption on my part, but I was disappointed all the same).  I was disappointed by the fact that for all of the motivation I could help bring about in him, it still competed with the negative influences outside of school.

So when I see my pencil sharpener, without exerting any effort on its part, motivate a student to succeed at doing something, I get a little bit jealous.

The Meanest Teacher In All The World

“Man!  Why you gotta hate?!”

“I’m not hating.  You’re missing a period,” I calmly replied.

“It’s just one period!  Can’t you accept it?”

“No. Plus your headers not the right size.  It’s supposed to be 12 point font.”  My student looked like he was for sure going to clobber me now, which he could have easily done since he towered over me.

“It IS 12 point font!”

“No.  No, it’s not.  Once you fix both of the problems, I’ll accept your essay.”  He let out a cross between a growl and a groan.  He was so pleased that he was going to turn in his essay early, but that’s one thing that was in his favor.  Since I caught those errors, he was able to fix them (and conceded that  his header was in 11 point font) and became one of the five students out of my 33 whose essay I accepted the day it was due.

Essay due dates are stressful for both me and my students.  My students want to unload this essay that they’ve been spending their time on, but first it has to pass inspection of its MLA format, font, overall formatting, and works cited page.  If it is not perfect, I don’t accept it until they fix it.  The thing is, I warn them.  I tell them exactly what I’m going to do on the day they turn it in.  In addition to this, I also give them the resources they need to do it correctly.  I provide tutoring, feedback, and often spend my prep helping a student with his or her essay.  They have everything they need to do it correctly.

They, however, do not believe me.  They do not believe I will reject their essay.  They do not believe my resources and opt to use impostors that lead them astray. They do not believe me when I say, “Do it just like this one,” nor do they believe me when I walk them through it. They do believe that I will “let it slide” or capitulate at their sob story or story of heroics that they “tried”.  They always have a rude awakening.  Their response to my refusal of their “best effort” is anger and frustration– while I believe it’s often at themselves, it’s taken out on me: The Meanest Teacher In All The World.  One boy refused to believe me when I said his works cited page was wrong and implied that my version of the 7th edition MLA handbook was wrong, while his computer generated works cited was correct.  He would not budge from his position, and it nearly escalated into a shouting match until I remembered that I was the grown up.  One girl made snide remarks to me about how much money it was costing her to print out numerous copies of her essay until I replied, “Do it right the first time and then you don’t have to spend so much money.”  Some students, to avoid my wrath, started double-checking their work (what a concept!), and were prepared for me, “Ms. L, I put the wrong date, my works cited is not in alphabetical order, and I messed up on the punctuation.”  Acknowledging their mistakes left them a bit more unscathed.

The problems with formatting and the works cited page reflects a greater problem of students: not using resources, not paying attention to detail, and using short-cuts.  This is bolstered by students who toe the line of acceptance and/or are used to just turning in “effort”.  Many students think they can do the bare minimum and get away with it; they don’t realize that they need to be an advocate for themselves when it comes to knowledge and learning.  One boy today didn’t advocate for himself at all when I totally forgot to check his paper yesterday.  What did he do?  He left class with his essay and went home.  Today, he turned it in late for half credit blaming me.  I apologized for over-looking him, but then asked him whose responsibility it is to make sure his essay’s turned in. Did he ever call my name so I could look at his essay?  Did he stay after class to make sure it got done?  Nope. He went home.  Today he stayed after class and fixed his mistakes.

This phenomena of not advocating for oneself and taking short cuts played out in my history class on a recent exam.  The exam was very fair, and I was quite sure they’d do well on it.  Their study guide also covered the material on the exam. The result?  My highest score was an 80% and it went down, down, downhill from there.  The results befuddled me.  How could my bright, engaged students do so poorly?  There were no trick questions.  Their scores were unacceptable, and I allowed (demanded is probably the correct term) them to retake it.  In preparation for the retake, they started to study and make flash cards and quiz each other. One of my girls reviewed her failing test and asked about one of the questions; she thought she knew the answer, but it wasn’t in the glossary.  This stopped me in my tracks, “Did you just use the glossary to study?”  She nodded her head.  I called out to the rest of my class, “Did you all use the glossary to study the first time?”  Everyone nodded their heads.  Everything made sense.  My test questions asked them to apply their knowledge and the glossary just provides the who, what, when, and where.  It neglects the hows and whys.  Their short cuts lead to failing grades and having to retake the test.  Fortunately, fourteen of them came in to retake it and all did much better.

I remember being a high school student and studying fervently for exams.  When it came to history exams, I re-read the chapters and quizzed myself. No one taught me how to create a works cited page; I had to use a handbook to figure it out.  I followed the directions and double-checked my work against the examples. My student population is more diverse and mostly impoverished, so I understand that they don’t have the resources at home, but where is the disconnect?  Where is the initiative?  Do teachers (including me) with all of their scaffolding and second chances take away the motivation for kids to learn how to do things on their own?  Is this a result of No Child Left Behind that passed failing kids along?  When is the onus taken from teachers and given to the students?  What’s frustrating is that they can all do it.  If they sat down and took their time, each and every one of them can do it.  So how do we get them there?