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Rebirth and Renewal

This week was…bad. This week was actually awful. It’s impossible to describe. But this week is mostly about one story that stood out amidst a pile of demoralizing moments.

My story is about one student — Sachin. Sachin and my relationship began in the beginning of the year, when he just immediately responded to my teaching style. We became close, until I found him stealing money from my purse, the day before his birthday party, which I’d promised to attend. This was during my first month, and I had no idea how to handle it — but between Aarti and I, we finally sat down, talked to him, and agreed upon consequences he had to face.

He was so remorseful and earnest about the whole situation that I happily showed up at his party the next day, confident that I would see progress.

And I did! He stayed after school a few times a week to rebuild the culture of trust I wanted in the classroom. He graded papers, helped other students, and grew so much in terms of both behavior and values that he quickly became one of my favorite students. He has a notebook that he brings to school every day, in which he writes down his feedback for me, both good and bad, that he shares with me every weekend. He was fast-tracked for growth, I thought.

This past Saturday, I gave my students an exam. It was 30 minutes and asked only one question: Compare and contrast the causes of the French Revolution to those of the American Revolution. We’d studied both in class over the past two weeks, and I gave them the essay question 5 days in advance so that they could outline and thought partner with their peers. On Saturday, though, they had to clear their desks and write the exam without notes.

I thought I’d done everything reasonable to prepare them for this test. I’d given them the question beforehand, I’d walked them through my ideal preparation, I’d organized times after school where they could run their ideas or outlines by me. So I had high expectations for student commitment on test day.

So when I was invigilating, I was surprised to see Sachin leaning over and asking Kaushik, one of our top students, for the answers.

I saw Kaushik refuse and turn away, and Sachin pick a fight with him. I was shocked to see the entitlement written all over Sachin’s face, the expectation that Kaushik would let him copy, the anger when he didn’t.

I walked up to them and asked Sachin to focus on his own paper, at which point he threw the paper at me, completely blank, and refused to take the rest of the exam. I asked him, as I did with all students that day, to write his name and hand over his test, even if it was a blank paper. I wanted my students to understand that lack of effort translated to a lack of marks, that it wasn’t enough or acceptable to pretend that they were simply absent that day. So I asked Sachin to pass me a blank paper if he wanted to, but take ownership for the results that came out of it.

He opened his book, the one filled with sticky notes of poems, feedback, thoughts, and ideas meant for me and Aarti. He tore them out, one by one, and threw them at me. I wanted to cry, but I knew I had to stand there. I knew I had to make him either answer his own paper or take ownership for his decision not to, to hold him to the same standards as I did everyone else. I picked up the sticky notes, promised him I’d keep them safe, and put them in my wallet.

But inside, I was terrified. Terrified that I had unilaterally demotivated a student that I thought I’d singlehandedly reached. That I’d ruined a relationship. I spent every day afterwards trying to make up for it. I spent a few minutes every day talking to Sachin one on one while he resolutely ignored me. I spent time sneaking him answers and then calling on him in front of the class. I asked him if I could come over and do his homework with him so that he’d have the chance to feel successful again. And despite it all he refused to look in my direction.

Teaching is a weird profession. It’s one where you have to take everything personally and nothing personally. That Sachin could be turned off of school is supposed to be of paramount importance. That he won’t talk to me, of no importance. How are we supposed to figure this out? What is “taking it personally” and what is just “doing everything we can”?

I have no idea.

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