Tuesday, March 9, 2010

When a Student Makes Your Day

The last few weeks have been very stressful. As the California budget looms over teachers, tensions get high, fear sets in and the rumors start flying. This describes the recent days within my school district in Danville.

True colors often shine in times of uncertainty. Why just two years ago, the San Ramon Valley Union School District was praised for employing excellent, highly trained teachers that provided rigorous curriculum that challenged students to think critically. Our state tests scores indicated this, our WASC (Western Association for Schools and Colleges) accreditation indicated this, and many Californians strived to send their students to this district. What changed? I don't know. But clearly it is a matter of perception in a time of stress among our community.

Keeping up with the local forums has been an eye opener. Its amazing what some will say behind a pseudonym. In just two years, teachers in our district are now labeled as obstructionists, unionists, freeloaders, and my favorite, babysitters for the rich white folk. I have also learned that public education is not highly regarded, teachers do not establish the learning environment of a classroom, and class size reduction is a union ploy to keep teachers hired, not to support students.

It was in this moment when an ex-student of mine approached me after school one day. He is a large, very lazy student who barely scrapes by in all of this classes. During his Sophomore and Junior year in which I taught him, he came across as ultra-conservative but never could argue his points and usually didn't know the issues well enough to discuss them in depth. A typical dialogue might have gone like this:
Mr. Gardner: "Hey, what do you think we should do to promote democracy in Iraq and help stabilize that country so our troops can come home?"
Student: "Why don't we just bomb them even more until they give in and surrender."
Mr. Gardner: "Hmmm, I don't know. How would that promote a peaceful existence between Iraq and the United States?"
Student: "Who cares. Can I go to the bathroom?"

When he approached me he had a very blank look on his face, almost sad. He held his hand out to shake mine and said, "Mr. Gardner. I'm a registered liberal."

I didn't know what to do or say in that second. My instinct was just to laugh. And I did. And I laughed some more, and then some more. He just stood there staring at me, almost looking a little offended. When I gained my composure, I asked, "How does one become a registered liberal?"

He told me about a couple of surveys he had taken that asked his opinions about political and social issues and how it all started making sense to him. I think he even mentioned that he had "seen the light." He seemed defeated as he was tellimg me how he fared on these surveys. It was the first time that I had a genuine smile on my face the whole week.

All good teachers realize this is a teachable moment. Of course I corrected him and said that liberals and conservatives aren't required to register but that you will need to register for a political party, if there is one, that suits your interests. I encouraged him to keep questioning his own biases and learning about the issues and of course offered him the opportunity to discuss this more at any other time. My door is always open.

I thought about this for a long time. Why would he pick me to tell this too? Does he consider me to be a flaming liberal? If so, am I biased teacher? In the end, I realized it wasn't about that at all. It was about a comfort level that he and I have established as a student and teacher. He was comfortable telling me and I was so happy that he chose me to express this to.

I ran into this student today on campus. I reached out and shook his hand and truly thanked him for opening up to me. I told him how stressed that week had been and that he had totally made my day! That he had really made me smile! And this student beamed at me like I have never seen before and I just smiled back.

As I slapped him on the shoulder I said, "Now get to class, the bell is gonna ring!"


  1. I don't know if you've heard any about what's going on in New Albany-Floyd County School Corp. but it's a huge mess! I think if any of them knew and understood what California was going through, they would shut their mouths and be grateful!

    Moments like the one you described keep us reminded of why we became teachers! Love it!! Keep doing what you're doing!

    Take care,

  2. Andrew, you continue to amaze me!!