Friday, August 14, 2009

We Are Teachers, Not Police Officers* (In memory of Frank McCourt)

Among the great pleasures of life for college professors are our contacts with former students. Sometimes they send e-mails or handwritten notes; other times they tack notes to my office door; and sometimes we have a serendipitous and unexpected contact in a market or library and I get a quick glimpse into the windows of their lives.

Recently, I had an interesting e-mail from a former student. As a student-teacher in a high school, she has been coming to terms with a teacher's daily strains and workload. She had recently been fooled by a student claiming to be ill, only to learn later that the student had been malingering.

She wrote about that in passing. The real purpose of her letter was that she overheard one of my students boasting about his plan to fool me into giving him a higher grade than the "D" he had earned from me last semester, even as he malingered and claimed to have mono.

This is my reply to her:

Hi there--
YOU are the reward and payoff for me. I have had thousands of students and only a handful keep in touch or thank me for my efforts. But I have the joy of the work itself; of seeing the light go on in my students' faces; of seeing a student care enough to go into the Peace Corps or public school teaching to try to make the world a better place, and sometimes, when I'm lucky, someone like you who takes my feelings into consideration or writes to let me know that I have influenced your life in a positive way.

The world is a harsh place. The people who are the rats, the cheats, the lazy slobs who would rather steal somebody else's work, or the White House for that matter, were young once. We cannot know what forces combined to create a piece of coal instead of a diamond. Ultimately, we cannot take responsibility for them; we are teachers, not police officers. If I had to chase down every cheat or every creep who set out to fool me, I'd drive myself crazy. I can sleep easy knowing that I gave my all in the classroom. We who are the teachers can only do our best, teach our hearts out and believe that most of our students will go on to be good, honorable people who will raise their children to be that way as well, because most of them will. The problem is that the bad apples pollute the air itself. There appear to be more of them than there actually are.

As it happens, I know which student you are writing to me about; at least I think I do. Since I give so few "D's" or "F's" I almost always know who got them. It is because of students like him that I have had to become more suspicious and require doctor's notes. I hate doing it but I always have to figure these jokers into the equation. A student really has to screw up to get a D or an F in my classes: I bend over backwards to be fair. I have trained myself to avoid seeing the name on a class paper or exam until after I've graded it so that I don't favor a student I like or punish one I don't like. If they failed it is due to frequent absences, missed assignments, or excuses, excuses, excuses. This particular student was bragging about this last semester. A student who heard him confided to a male professor who called me anonymously to tip me off. I ended up feeling very suspicious and when one of my students got mono, I was a stickler for the doctor's note only to find that that student really was sick and nearly died.

What can you do? That young man is foolish. I can't take it personally. I wish I could send him to talk to the athlete who failed my intro class, and a year later showed up again but since he missed assignments, missed classes and failed tests, I flunked him again. When he showed up a third semester in a row, I told him to save us both a lot of aggravation, to go take something else. I hate giving failing grades but if they earn 'em, I give 'em. I used to think that eventually, the lying and cheating would cause a downfall but we only have to look at some of the leaders of our government to see how unlikely that is. And like you, I am hurt when someone succeeds in fooling me then brags about it to his friends.

I read once that the best teachers are funny and energetic; that a teacher creates the climate in his or her classroom. So teach, enjoy your teaching and remember that no fool can make a fool out of you; they only deepen the hole they're in. Your students will bless you and if there is a heaven, there's a special circle reserved for teachers. As a student's mother once said to me, teachers earn every nickel. If you want to read a book that will make you laugh out loud about teaching, read Teacher Man by Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes. I listened to it on CD (borrowed from the public library in Kingston) and it made my commute disappear.

Best of luck to you
Dr. P
Francis "Frank" McCourt (19 August 1930-19 July 2009) died just a month ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment