Honesty with Students

The second semester of the high school I teach has begun, and students begrudgingly returned to classes. I loathe the return to school (because Christmas cookies are all gone), but I love the second semester. The spring is always a challenge to keep kids focused as the weather returns to pleasant, but I view it as a time to modify and correct my teaching. While I advocate changing pedagogy and other methods throughout the year with constant review, the semester break offers both the student and the teacher a kind of clean-slate feeling, that we can really change things up if we need to without damaging the expected environment.

I have the opportunity to do that with my American government class this semester. While I taught the year-long AP course last year (and this year), the 2017 fall semester was my first time teaching the semester-long regular class. It was one of the toughest things I've had to do. I took far too long on the foundational chapters, bored students to tears by lecturing on everything I assigned in reading, and had to cram both the presidency and judiciary into one, 20-day unit. It was exhausting, and getting the students to cooperate was like trying to pry teeth from a tiger with your head in its mouth.

But as this new semester starts with a fresh group of young faces, I had a little revelation. At least at my high school, I've learned, if you're up front with the kids, they'll respect you a little more and give you grace. The American government class is a required course most students don't care to take and put off until their senior year, and worse, is at the very end of the day. The students are tired, they don't exactly want to be in the room, and would do anything to just go home. I get it. And that's what I told them.

After going over class expectations, I asked the students how many actually wanted to be in the class--few hands were raised. I told them that's expected. I told them I don't care much for the last hour of the day (appropriately called the Hateful Eighth), either. I acknowledged that they're here because they have to, not because they want to; that yes, there are some boring things to be learned in government; and that reading about the nature of a nation-state isn't exactly straight-forward.

My students began to chuckle at each thing I named. It was a sign of life that I rarely ever got in the fall. I said, "Listen, guys. We all know what's going on here. It's the last hour of the day and it's a required course. I get it. But if you can tough it through on the hard days, the easier days will be a little brighter. If you can work with me, understand that I know how you feel, we can get through this. You get out what you put in. So put in a little energy, and I'll give you a little energy. Deal?"

They nodded passively, but as I let them converse for the last few minutes of class, I overheard them say, "I wish other teachers were like that. This class might suck, but at least it's not fake." I'm all for positivity and optimism. But students, especially in high school, are learning to become adults. If you're honest and real with them, they'll go a lot farther for you then if you try to cram happy feelings down their throat.

Lesson learned: be real with students, and they'll be real with you.

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