Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Reflections on a Ruined Day

Contrary to popular belief, teaching, at least in my own experience, is not a thankless job. Especially since it's known that I'll be leaving next year, I've been getting a disproportionate amount of praise lately. Students, colleagues, administrators seem to be going out of their way with kind thanks and appreciation.

That background puts bad days like today into perspective. How can you ruin a teacher's day? Ask a student we'll call Jose from my teamed Biology class who succeeded royally in making me feel rotten today. It began as I was looking at Jose's recent exam grades and noting with some satisfaction that he had improved his grade by quite a bit from the last exam. Flipping through the other scantrons, I noticed that the student seated next to him had received an identical grade. I looked more closely: they had missed the same items. I still held some hope that it might be a coincidence--perhaps they were the most difficult items? Unfortunately, they missed the same items with the same wrong responses.

I still felt hesitant about making an accusation of cheating without more than circumstantial proof, so I informed Jose of what I had discovered and told him he would need to retake the test. I explained that both students would need to redo it and that I did not even know if one person had copied without the other's knowledge or who had copied from whom. His reaction? "Why? You don't believe that it is my grade unless I get an F because I am Latino? I don't want to take it again. I did a good job the first time."

I tried to explain to him my rationale, and of course it didn't work. I left in a very bad mood and feeling like a failure. Here we were at the end of the school year, and not only had my student not notably improved, but he was resorting to cheating to get ahead AND refused to take responsibility for it. Worse, his stinging accusation was hard to shake. I began to think of some other Latino students struggling in my classes and had to ask myself: was I unconsciously racist? Were my Latino students doing poorly because I had somehow stacked the odds against them? Images of studies I have read about flashed through my head, such as one mentioned by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink, where people struggle to match positive terms with African American faces as quickly as they can with negative words like "steal" and "bad." How horrifying to feel that you lived free of prejudice, only to discover that in your gut, at the most basic level, your racism overcame your conscious will! I began to understand how damaging reinforcing stereotypes really can be. Every episode you watch of "Law and Order" that portrays petty thugs and gangsters as belonging to a certain race reinforces that stereotype until it takes on a life of its own, overpowering your professed open-mindedness by sheer, mind-numbing repetition.

Still, when I thought through the steps that had led to this confrontation, I had to admit that the evidence was so strong against him that I could not in good conscience have ignored it. But I did not really start feeling better until my last class of the day as I taught my beginning level students. Here my Latino students were universally thriving, and they were also defying stereotypes. There was the student with a limited educational background who had received a surprisingly high reading test score, the polite girl whose vocabulary and grammar had improved so quickly I could not understand where the new words and structures came from, and the class clown whose writing revealed an astonishing depth and sensitivity. I cherish these students because as I have come to know them they become real as people, not Latinos, not even as ESOL students.

What a delicate balance it is between protecting ourselves from being wronged, taken advantage of, and abused, and facing up to constructive criticism and correction. To Jose and all my students I would say never let yourselves be degraded, but always be ready for an opportunity to better yourself, to take correction, and to become refined.

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