There are times when I think my main function as a teacher is to confront how much of hypocrite I am on a daily basis. Do all adults feel this way, or is it something about working with children that makes it glaringly obvious?
The areas where I most often find myself in a hypocritical position fall into two categories:
1. Teaching writing
2. Other stuff
Wait. Don't I rag on my students all the time for using a vague word like "stuff"? Dang. There's that hypocrite again.
When it comes to the "other stuff" category, these are usually the things outside my control. Do I agree 100% with all district and Department of Ed policies and standards of operation? No. Is it part of my job to enforce certain rules? Yes. So I have to be a hypocrite when the rules come from above my pay grade.
But I don't have to be one when it comes to teaching writing.
Except that it's so easy to be a hypocritical writing teacher.
I confronted the major sin of writing teachers a few years ago when I started writing with my students in real time. This is terrifying, and I know there are plenty of writing teachers who never feel comfortable taking the leap. It's so much easier to craft a perfect example at home or during your planning period, put that up on the board as the model of (unattainable) perfection, and never allow students to see how messy the process of this art can be.
Using the example made me a hypocrite because I was hiding the most important part of writing: the creation. Changing that made all the difference in the world for me and my students. First, it made me a writer again, instead of an editor. There's a monumental difference between the two roles, and developing writers need other writers, not editors. Second, it allows my students to see me as a writer. This means they know they have an expert in the room. Not because I'm perfect and not because I'm telling them I know what I'm doing; because they see me as a competent writer. Don't ever underestimate legitimacy in the eyes of teenagers. They respect it that I make myself as vulnerable as I expect them to be.
When one of my students wrote this for his weekly writing a few months back, it was one of the best compliments I could have received, but it was more than an ego boost. I obviously do care what people think of me, but this student views my confidence as connected to my willingness to write in front of my class. My modeling has shown him a huge step in the writing process that's often ignored: the bravery required to be a writer. That might be the most important lesson I'm ever able to teach him about writing.
That's great, but I'm still a hypocrite. I write weekly writings and rough drafts with my students in every period, every time, but I never take it beyond that level. I lead them through revising, and I sit in on peer response as a responder, but I'm rarely in those activities as a writer.
This time, for our Tri 3 Finals, I decided to confront the hypocrite in the front of the room.
I looked up an old weekly writing from last year, when we were hiring a replacement for the teacher across the hall. I knew it would be a good topic because I had more to add after a year, and I knew the kids would like it because it dealt with something they cared about: our new teacher is one of their favorites. I did my revision annotations in front of them, talking them through my reasoning. Then I did the actual revisions to my document on the screen, too.
I've gotten so used to being (by default) one of the best writers in the room, that I was cheating myself out of the most important part of the writing process. Just because I can write a decent rough draft, doesn't mean I get to check out from the frustration and satisfaction that comes with making writing better. It's been so long since I've taken a piece through legitimate revision that I forgot how fun it can be. I'm proud of what the piece has turned into. I'm 33, and I still need to push myself to grow as a writer as much as I push my students.
Now we're in peer response. I've brought my piece to a few groups in different class periods, based on absences. They're responding as they would to a peer, even if the (formerly page and a half) paper is now nearing seven pages long. Now the peer response process is forcing me to confront another area in which I'm a hypocrite.
I tell every class before we start revision and peer response one major thing: Your writing is not sacred. Do not be so attached to it that you let fear stop you from changing it. It's not the Bible; it's a Tri Final. Change will make it better.
I love this speech. Nothing we write in this room is sacred in its rough draft form. Writing is powerful and scary and important, but it's also living and malleable when we take the time to work with it.
It's so hard for me to do this as a writer. I am the procrastinator. I'm the "rough draft that's good enough to get an A, so why should I try harder" kid. The person who discounts peer criticism because they can't possibly help me. I am the worst writer who has ever participated in peer response because I rarely accept it. The hypocrite who gives the "your writing is not sacred" speech thinks her writing is sacred!
I'm fighting my natural impulses this week. I'm reading the feedback and asking for advice. Maybe I will listen and make some changes, maybe I'll decide not to. I can only ask that my students do the same. It wouldn't be fair for me to expect thirteen and fourteen year olds to be better, more responsible writers than me, and that's a lesson that all writing teachers can keep in mind.
My principal is a firm believer in second (and third, and fourth, and a million) chances. This extends to both students and staff, as I know I've pushed him to his limit of tolerance on many occasions, and he's still able to put up with me. He stresses it most with our kids, though. The need for retakes, reteaching, rewrites, and do overs are part of his core beliefs about middle school education.
In my first few years of teaching, I bristled at this. Second chances make kids lazy! They'll take advantage of us! They should have learned it the first time! This is exactly why this generation is so soft! There are no do overs in the real world!
As with many beliefs and actions from my early years of teaching, I cringe when I reflect back. What an idiot. Of course there are do overs in the real world. Adults get more do overs than anybody.
You didn't pass your driver's test on the first (or third) try? That's okay. You can take it again.
You don't marry the right person? That's okay. You can divorce and do it again (if you want).
The U.S. Constitution isn't in step with modern times? That's okay. We can amend it.
You typed the wrong version of they're/there/their on a Facebook post when you were trying to look intelligent? That's okay. There's an edit button so you can rewrite.
You didn't score as high as you'd like on a standardized test to get into college, grad school, receive state licensure, etcetera? That's okay. You can pay the fee and do it again as many times as you need to.
You don't like the career you've chosen for yourself? That's okay. You can change and switch to something else.
You didn't get your taxes in on time? That's okay. You can get an extension.
You made a mistake one day at work? You're fired! No, wait. Most likely, you'll have a warning before that happens.
The possibilities for fresh starts and second chances are endless. Yet for some reason, adults think we are the gatekeepers of second chances. We think we have to harden kids up and punish them for needing more than just one attempt because otherwise... Otherwise what? They'll be prepared for an adult world that's full of second chances and do overs? They'll realize that we screw up too, and then the curtain of adult perfection will be pulled back and there will be widespread chaos?
The mentality that some teachers, schools, and parents have about do overs is silly. Restricting kids' ability to relearn or redo something doesn't toughen them up or teach them an important life lesson. If anything, it reinforces negative behavior and works against the goal of learning. You can never make something better if you missed your one chance, so don't even think about putting in the extra time and effort to do it right!
The battle over second chances is one where I stand firmly on the side of kids against adults. I lump it into my most hated category of adult behavior: holding kids to higher standards than we hold ourselves. Hypocrites are never attractive, and it's much uglier when we do it in the guise of what's best for kids. Teaching developing humans that it's not okay to start again, that growing and changing is limited to a certain acceptable time frame, and that there is no forgiveness; this is horrible for society. Don't use the "harsh reality of the real world" argument with me; the real world operates in shades of gray, and holding kids to a black and white standard in school doesn't magically help to prepare them for real life. (School doesn't prepare people for real life anyway; it only gives us skills and knowledge that might come in handy when experiencing real life teaches us how to prepare for real life.)
I still have due dates for work in my class, and I still assign grades according to school requirements. Major papers can be rewritten if the student comes in for an extra writing conference with me, and we tackle the highest area of need in that piece of writing. Participation can be earned back by sending me emails or coming in to have a one on one conversation.
There are many students who don't take advantage of these opportunities, and it can be frustrating. I advocate for their ability to redo, and they don't do it. But at least I've made it a possibility. At least I haven't slammed the door in their faces. I'm not one more adult telling them they can't have a second chance because I think it will teach them something other than how to be a crabby adult who's unforgiving.
Teenagers are infuriating. I know, because I work with them every day. I know, because I was one once, and I'm not going to hold my students to a standard that I couldn't have possibly passed at their age.
Second chances aren't the problem with kids these days. The problem is our inability as adults to grant children the same amount of grace we would have wanted in our own teen years.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.