Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Giving High-Fives

Teachers don’t stand at their doors here. That’s different than the public school I retired from where the administration “strongly suggested” [read often demanded] that we stand by our doors during passing periods. The reason there, of course, was that in the public school, fights, drug deals, harassment, and inappropriate behavior could be deterred by the visible presence of a teacher. Here we don’t have those problems.

One of the good things that grew out of greeting the students at the door happened quite by accident. During third quarter a student walking into my History and Thought of Western Man class was feeling goofy and gave me a high-five. When I responded, the student following him wanted one too. And so on… and so on. Within a couple of days students began expecting high-fives. If I was late getting to the door, they waited for me before coming in. It became a game of community—and fairly quickly the woman I taught with felt left out and joined in too. Each beginning of that class became a celebratory event.

After a couple of weeks, I began noticing that that class’ camaraderie was more visibly positive. They seemed to feel good about themselves and each other more than the other History and Thought class that didn’t do it.

When I questioned some students about their perception of a change and what they thought the high-five was doing, one young lady told me:

“You’re the first teacher who ever made me feel like you wanted me in your classroom. I came to class one day, embarrassed that I hadn’t read the assignment—and you still gave me a high-five. I didn’t feel like I deserved it, but you still made me feel like you cared that I was there.”

I’d like to report that her class grades dramatically improved. They didn’t. But what did change exponentially was her involvement with and interest in the class. She knew I cared more about her than her grades—and that made the class easier for her to take.

On my last day with that class, the students formed a long line so they could all give me one last high-five. It was the most appropriate parting present they could have given.

So two years later I’m at a new school where I’m very happy, but I realized today that I am one of the few teachers standing at my door. Last week I shared with my freshman class about the high-fives and they have now bought into their own tradition—a couple are very tentative, some smack my hand as hard as they can seeing if I’ll flinch, one even had to do it a couple of times today to make sure the sound and the hit was to his liking. It’s contagious also. The teacher who shares the room before me said the day we started it, “I want one too.” So now he and I also high-five a greeting as I walk in.

Call it goofy, hokey, whatever you want. But I’m going to be interested in seeing how the sense of community grows.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Returning to Teach

My attempt at full-retirement was a failure. I spent a lot of time feeling vaguely guilty that while others were working I was sitting around doing my art and writing. The Midwestern Middle-class Puritan Ethic my parents taught me was pretty hard to move beyond. When in Second Semester St. Ignatius College Prep’s administration asked me to cover for a maternity leave from last April through June, I jumped at the chance. Having taught in public school for 39 years, I suddenly encountered a brand new world where it is okay to talk about one’s own faith journey and I can actually teach a majority of students who want to be where they are.

As summer approached, I was asked to teach full time this year. I didn’t want to do it—after all I am retired. But when I was offered part time again—four classes first semester and three second—I was happily agreed.

So in August I rejoined the staff of St. Ignatius for the beginning of my 40th year of teaching. The first day of freshmen, 22 August, I walked in with them. Seniors acting as leaders had formed into a long gauntlet—a pretty intimidating prospect for a teacher, even more so for a freshman. But as students walked past the seniors, they were cheered and applauded—and buoyed up with comments such as, “We’re glad you’re here”…”welcome”…”you’re going to love it here.” I was walking behind two freshmen girls. As they entered the building a senior stopped one of the girls and said, “Those are very cool shoes.” Imagine hearing a compliment on your first day in high school instead of being thrown pennies or castigated with catcalls.

Each senior leader counsels five freshmen. Before opening day they had called all of their charges to wish them good luck and tell them they would see them. Once a week during homeroom, they now come and talk with the kids to see how things are going. This will be for the entire year. My freshmen seem happy to work with them.

Friday we had our first Ignatian Value Day. These are four days set aside each year to deal with issues of social change, growth and justice. Our theme was “Being Open to Change.”

The day started with an all-school Mass. Students were released according to their class. My freshmen came in at the end… and were greeted at the front door of the church by the President of the School and other administrators. Inside, all the students were applauding and cheering as my students walked down the center aisle and sat in the center pews. What a powerful message of welcome.

I should point out that St. Ignatius students worship at Holy Family Church, which is beside the school. The Church, one of the most beautiful in the city of Chicago, was originally constructed in 1857-1860 under the supervision of Fr. Damon, a Jesuit priest. Additions to the original church in 1862 and 1866 enlarged it to its present impressive size. Surviving both the fire of the 1870s, changing neighborhoods, and threats of demolition in the 1980s, the present church is both inspiring and awesome.

As the Mass began, near the front of the procession, four students carried 7 foot banners -- two in maroon and two in gold bearing the legends ’08, ’09, ’10, ’11—which were placed on the altar. Seeing the church packed with some 1300 students singing and worshipping was a great boost.

After a powerful speech by one of the teachers regarding his views about being open to change, the last part of the day was spent reflecting on the message. My freshmen set goals of ways to make change in class more positive. They will in the next two weeks try to get to know three people in class they don’t know right now. It’s small steps, but after the sense of inclusion they’ve experienced, I know they can build their own community of trust.