One of the most powerful moments in my teaching career was the day I explained unconditional love-- and a sophomore boy understood it for the first time in his life.
We were playing a "would you ever" type game-- would you keep a thousand dollars if it landed in your mailbox unannounced? Each kid tried to give me a more impossible hypothetical: would you call the cops on me if you knew I was on the run? Would you visit me if I went to jail for murder?
It's important to understand what I do for a living. I teach alternative ed at our local high school. Kids come to alt ed usually because they have suffered some sort of traumatic loss in their childhood. Often times that loss is of childhood itself-- either poverty, substance abuse, pregnancy, divorce, violence, or family tragedy forced them to grow up fast and take on adult responsibilities before their brains were ready. School becomes something to be endured, and often puts up roadblocks to their day to day success. Back when kids could get decent jobs without a diploma, this wasn't much of a problem. In today's world, though, being a high school dropout has severe ramifications, so most public high schools have an alternative ed program to try to help find ways around said roadblocks. So these "would you ever" games are fairly common in my classroom, and they have real value. I teach a lot of coping skills through these conversations. (Honestly, I teach coping skills more than I teach any credit class, but that's another story for another post.)
So the questions kept intensifying, sort of along these lines:
Would you visit me in jail if I committed a murder?
Yes, sweetie, I would.
You would? But I'd be a murderer?
Yes, honey, I'd be disappointed in your choice, but you'd still be one of my sunshines, and I'd still love you.
Wait a minute, you'd still love me? Even if I killed someone?
Again, I would not be happy with you. I would certainly not be proud of your actions. But I can't stop loving someone every time they do something wrong. I'd make darn sure you paid your debt to society, but I'd come visit and help you through it. It's called unconditional love, and it means just that: I love you, without conditions, forever.
The look on his face said it all. At age 15, he did not believe me when I said I love him because of who he is, not what he does. He was certainly floored by that knowledge, but I was just as moved. I grew up in a perfect, rose colored childhood, surrounded by love, support, and opportunity. I knew from the time I could walk that I was loved and valued. How did he not know the same thing? How could anyone grow up not knowing that they would be loved forever? But that day... he did know it. When I look back, I can trace when he started to "grow up" and make better choices to that conversation. Wow indeed.
That moment, among others, helped cement my teaching style. My number one priority is not awarding grades or credits or diplomas: I am here to teach kids that they are worthy of being truly, absolutely, and completely loved, valued and respected. Which does not mean that I respect each choice a kid makes (because I know they make many bad ones) nor do I let them off the hook when they screw up. It is my life's work to help them learn how to make better choices for themselves and then have enough pride in their reputation to have the strength to make the hard choices. I'm not a trophy-for-every-participant kind of self esteem believer-- not even close; but when you can help a kid (and like it or not, teenagers are still kids) stand up a little bit taller because they are proud of who they are becoming, or owned up to a mistake and made amends, or pushed themselves harder than they'd ever pushed before-- well, that's the kind of self esteem I'm trying to teach. Because ribbons fade and tatter, but character endures.
Whether or not a student is able to earn his high school diploma by the age of 18 and graduate with his 4 year cohort, I can teach him things that will enrich his life and hopefully enable him to get that diploma in his 20s, when he is ready. I do not define my success on my graduation rate, no matter how much the current chatter about the problems with schools does. For me, it is when I start to see the subtle changes in how a kid sees himself, and starts to make decisions based on a positive reputation and not a negative one. That will take him much further than any piece of paper could.
Many of my colleagues think I'm too easy on my students and don't
hold them to high enough standards, and I can appreciate why they think
that way. My classroom does run differently than the other classrooms,
but it says so in the title. Until the kid is willing to come to school
and try to learn, no amount of rigor is going to make a difference. I don't take their concerns lightly, but I also don't take them to heart. If the general track was what was going to work for them, they'd never end up crossing my threshold. But if I have to make a choice about sacrificing content or relationships, well... without a relationship, no one cares about content.
Yesterday I saw another post about this very topic. I'd never put it into words before, but I realized it is what I do. I can't not do it-- I have been blessed with the ability to love everyone I encounter on some level, so this isn't something I've taught myself to do but something I have just lived my life doing. But I can do this job-- and believe me, there are some very difficult days-- because I am able to love each and every kid just because they breathe. It's a powerful notion, with powerful implications. I'm pretty sure that every kid who has ever entered my room has left it knowing I enjoyed spending time with them-- even when they left as a result of having made poor decisions. If I've done nothing else, I've done that, and that is enough for me.