438. Hard Caring

Some children make it easy for you to care about them. They do and say things that just melt your heart. They make your day, even sometimes when you come to school determined to have a lousy day. They sometimes seem like teachers’ aides, setting examples for other children, helping those who need help, and generally making the teacher feel good. And some manage to be like that without being the stereotypical apple-polishing teacher’s pet types.
Other children aren’t like that. They’ve got problems, and they bring those problems to school. Some of those problems just make it hard for children to learn. Children who have difficulty learning but don’t misbehave can be quite teachable. But there are children who make it hard for some teachers to teach. I recently talked with Roger Wallace, a sixth grade teacher who cares deeply about his work. Roger is a teacher through and through. I don’t know whether he considers teaching a sacred mission; I don’t know whether he’s a religious kind of guy. But it didn’t take long for me to decide that he’s not just teaching to earn a living. And he’s not just doing it for fun.
Roger has a big class, and he has quite a few children who are challenges. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve usually had three or four really challenging children per year. That was okay. The one year I had many more, I often thought about what I’d like to do instead of teach. I never got to the point of looking for any other kind of work, but I thought about it.
But Roger doesn’t seem to spend his time thinking about looking elsewhere. He cares deeply about children most other teachers just hope they don’t end up with. And he lets children know that he cares about them. Sometimes he lets them know by getting on their case.
Most teachers I know (including myself) are gentler than Roger in their approaches. When faced with children who don’t respond to gentleness, we’re gentle anyway, hoping they’ll learn by our examples. If and when they don’t, we keep trying, but still in our gentle ways.
I’ve also known teachers who were less gentle, but didn’t seem to care about the children in their classes. They’ve had a “sink or swim” attitude, and there were children in these teachers’ classes who sank.
But Roger’s attitude is neither uniformly gentle nor “sink or swim.” It’s “swim.” He isn’t going to let a child in his class give up. He believes in every child in his class, and he cares with all his might and all his skill. I’ve seen him dealing with children who weren’t meeting his standards of behavior or effort. He gets angry. But it’s not the kind of anger I’ve seen and heard in other teachers; the message behind the anger is not “You’re making me look bad,” or “You’re making my life harder.” Roger’s message is “I refuse to give up on you.”
I’ve never been the kind of teacher Roger is. I don’t think I ever will be. It’s not my style. But I think children are lucky to be in his class. He’s not going to let them fail.

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