National Writing Project

Caring Comes First: A Personal Narrative

By: Kathy Moran
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: In this time of intense pressure on teachers to accept standardization and hold students to strict measures, Kathy Moran argues that establishing personal connections is as important as following curriculum.

 

"No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care." Attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, these words have become my professional and personal mission statement over the past twenty-nine years as a teacher, and I have come to realize that the teachers who most influenced me during my education adhered to this motto as well.

One's education evolves layer by layer, and it is a challenge to recall who taught us what. I am not sure, for instance, if it was my eighth or ninth grade English teacher who drummed into me that I should never split an infinitive, but I do remember the difference between these two teachers. In addition to teaching the curriculum, Mr. Hampton my eighth grade teacher, connected personally to his classes. He inquired about families and activities, playfully teased about boyfriends, and shared his own personal interests and hobbies. I knew Mr. Hampton was an avid University of Missouri Tigers fan who often spent weekends following the football and basketball teams and that he loved reading and fishing. Mrs. I-can't-remember-her-name, on the other hand, taught strictly by the ninth grade curriculum. The only personal conversation I remember having with her involved my use of a sentence fragment in an essay. She was a knowledgeable teacher, but her lack of personal interest did not help me develop a sense of who I was or who I could become. Through the years, I have frequently remembered Mr. Hampton, reflecting on the positive experience of being his student and desiring to emulate him in my own classroom.

But I wasn't thinking about Mr. Hampton when Josh entered my English III classroom two weeks after school had begun. I didn't have to admit him. And as I took in the football jersey stretched over his beefy frame and his backward baseball cap, I must have looked doubtful because, as Josh handed me the add slip, he declared "I'll do all the work." Thinking to myself, you're a soft touch, I signed the admit slip.

But, as I suspected, Josh didn't do all the work—or much of it at all. He stuffed handouts in his jeans' pocket then wore a different pair of jeans the next day; he studied through osmosis as he fell asleep on the open textbook; he contributed to class discussions by chattering to anyone who would listen about anything but the assigned reading. Early on, I forgave his flaws because he was so likable, but over time, I resented the problems he added to my day and distanced myself from him in my annoyance.

But then the football coach reminded me of what Mr. Hampton would have done. The coach told me Josh lived with his parents' ridicule and discouragement every day. He needed a support group of stable adults, and I faced a choice of becoming personally involved or continuing to be annoyed by Josh's bad habits. I chose the former. I bought him a folder, paper, and pen; spoke frankly to him about his irresponsibility; and engaged him in discussions about the football team before class began. Josh warmed to my personal interest and made a hit-and-miss effort to improve.

One February day much later in the year, I stood before my students explaining why I was crying. During lunch, a dam of grief had broken and I had burst into tears over the loss of my grandson, stillborn the previous November. Caught off guard and realizing there was no point pretending all was normal, I explained my appearance. Many of the students expressed concern, but Josh's response touched me the most. Listening to my explanation, he commented, "Don't feel bad, Mrs. Moran. One time I blubbered like a baby after a bad play in an eighth grade football game. Right on the sidelines in front of the coach, the team, and everybody! Man, I just fell apart!" The cause of Josh's grief and mine may not have been in any way equivalent, but I was absolutely moved by his caring. I smiled, which encouraged him further.

"I can make you laugh. I know jokes!" he added and then proceeded to tell them. Jokes, puns, riddles—the boy had a repertoire large enough for a stand-up routine.

I did laugh long and loudly until the bell rang, and as the students departed I realized Josh had just reminded me of why I had become a teacher: it was the daily intimacy-charged contact with people. Yes, I love literature, writing, and grammar, but I love people more.

I have had many opportunities to test both my willingness and my ability to develop personal relationships with my students. Along the way I have heard the argument that it isn't necessary for teachers to be involved in students' private concerns or to have students involved with ours. After all, other professionals don't establish personal relationships with their patients or clients; a doctor, lawyer, oraccountant normally does not tell us he is having a bad day. These professionals are hired to dispense medical, legal or financial advice on an occasional or temporary basis. But I believe teachers work under a different set of circumstances. We see our "clients" every day. We need to know our students on a personal level, or we won't recognize when they are struggling. And this knowledge need have nothing to do with "touchy-feely" pedagogical approaches that pry into the hidden corners of students' lives. Indeed, students feel individually recognized when we congratulate them on accomplishments outside of the classroom, acknowledge their return after an absence, or remember a birthday. Such interaction, without intruding, sends a caring message.

Conversely, part of knowing students is allowing them to know us. If they are to understand that we care about them, they need to see our humanity. Of course no teacher should be encouraged to pour out the details of her divorce to an audience of prurient-minded sixteen-year-olds. In making decisions about what students should know about my life, I have relied on guiding questions: Will my sharing create an awkward, uncomfortable atmosphere? Might it somehow establish a secret intimacy that could be construed as unprofessional? Would I feel uncomfortable sharing this information even with my own children? If my answer to any of these is yes, I refrain from crossing the line. On the other hand, if I am facing a long-term struggle or a momentary crisis of which the students are aware, how can I not acknowledge my humanity and be open with them?

On that February day, I took a chance by being myself in front of my class, and I was rewarded for my risk-taking. Josh was comfortable enough to encourage me and to share his own memory of a painful experience. In that moment, I saw past a young man's poor academic performance and into his heart.

In this time of high-stakes education so much pressure is placed on the classroom teacher to have students succeed in academics and on standardized tests that it is easy to lose sight of other teaching responsibilities. True, our students need skills to succeed in the work force and become productive adults, but some other aspects of their lives and character development matter at least as much. Josh's writing and critical thinking skills were a long way from adequate when he left my classroom, but he demonstrated important personal attributes not measured by pencil and paper: empathy, compassion, kindness. These qualities will serve him well throughout his life, and I would have missed them if I had not taken the time to treat Josh as a whole person and to trust him with my own struggle.

This year I retired from teaching, but I wanted one more opportunity to remind myself and my readers of Mr. Hampton's lesson: good teaching is not only about un-splitting students' infinitives; it is even more about splitting open hearts—our students' and our own.

About the Author Kathy Moran has just retired after twenty-nine years of teaching; the last twenty-three she served as a high school teacher in the Blue Springs R-IV District in Blue Springs, Missouri. She is a teacher-consultant with the Greater Kansas City Writing Project, Missouri.

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