Atticus Finch--Mentor Teacher
"You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." ~Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird
There have to be a hundred quotes I choose to live by on any given day and I'm always finding more. Like my mother and grandmother before me, I've been scavenging for and collecting quotations in notebooks nearly all of my life. Words are how I make sense of the insensible and express the inexpressible. Many quotations surface from the deep recesses of memory when I need them. Sometimes they are jolted loose at random, or become new again in a fresh context. Today, I tried to pick the one that's had the longest and strongest impact on who I am as a person, as well as who I am as a teacher.
When I first read these words from Atticus to Scout as an 8th grader, I knew immediately how powerful they were, for Atticus is the finest of teachers. These words have echoed in my heart and mind ever since.
Understanding others is probably my biggest barrier to success in the classroom. I just don't get some kids. When I find myself irritated or at odds with a student, I try to figure out what walking around in their skin would be like.
At the beginning of the year, I wasn't sure I could like a young man who was very negative. Everything we did was stupid or boring. When writing their on-demand narrative, he tossed his hair out of his eyes and asked, "Does it have to be good?" Everyone laughed and his neighbor fist-bumped him.
"Does your best work have to be good? You tell me, Charlie." (Not his real name.) My voice dripped with venom. He flinched and hunched over his keyboard, painfully pecking out one word at a time with just his index fingers, mumbling about his best work never being good enough.
Why did it take me nearly 24 hours to process the fear in his statement? To recognize the odds of his success in a timed, typed writing task were greatly stacked against him? When my anger receded, when I crawled into his skin, I realized how so much of his negativity was a mask. When I put myself in his place, I shriveled at the negativity in my own voice. I couldn't change his negativity maybe, but I could change mine.
The next day, I sat with him at his table and asked some curious questions about his blog and his interests. When he dropped the mask and shyly chattered away about movies and football and his friends, he glowed with joy. I was determined to help him find that glow when reading and writing.
Today, he sat in the blue leather recliner, deeply lost in The Sea of Monsters. He has finished two Trent Reedy books and The Lightning Thief. When I asked if anyone needed help with "The Tell-Tale Heart" or their Notice and Note blog posts, he wandered over with his Chromebook, sat down next to me at my table and said, "I need some help. I don't understand what to do with the quotes."
I marveled at the change. Here he was, of his own volition, articulating his uncertainty--no mask. As we talked through the first paragraph of "The Tell-Tale Heart," and wondered together about the "you" the narrator is addressing in the line "you fancy me mad," I watched his fingers flit around on the keyboard. He was on home row! It was still slow going, but the improvement was marked. I complimented him on his progress and was treated to the same sunny smile I got for complimenting one of his touchdowns. (Turns out, he's quite good!)
Then he said, "For the second quote, I was thinking maybe the line about the Evil Eye. Don't you think that shows being compelled by irresistible force?" If I had a football, I would've spiked it right there in the end zone and then performed some silly dance moves. I settled for a high five, said, "You've got this, Charlie." And I walked away.
Writing is still hard work for him. And he has a long way to go before he masters elaboration and craft. But he's got a growth mindset about it. He's no longer defeated before he starts. He's not afraid he won't measure up. He's confident he can build his skills.
"Mrs. Paulsen, can I have the blog post checklist? I want to make sure I meet all the requirements. The notice and note part can be a tough question, right? Because I noticed Percy is asking some tough questions here." He plops the book open, flips the hair out of his eyes, and points to a page where Percy does indeed ask himself some tough questions.
Inside my head, the crowd goes wild.