If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. Early May. We’ve been teaching since the beginning of August. This is the home stretch. There’s six more weeks of school. Spring Break is a faded memory and every morning is a little harder to get out of bed. The weekends are busier; time goes faster as the days get longer. It is Monday morning. I am tired. The students are tired. And I forgot about the breakfast that the PTO was hosting this morning.

Teacher Appreciation Week isn’t the same for high school teachers as it is for elementary school teachers. I get it. As an elementary student, you have one main teacher. In high school, you have seven. Even a five dollar Starbucks gift card for each would cost more than most families are willing to splurge on, and high school students don’t always love all their teachers.

My school tries to show its support. In addition to the breakfast, we usually get a free pizza lunch from our Leadership Club and some desserts from a student club that would be the modern-day equivalent of Home Ec. Our administration sometimes gives us something useful with our school logo on it- a flash drive or sticky notes. One year we got a plastic travel mug although I’m fairly certain it wasn’t BPA free. This year we got gum and a pen.

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Occasionally a student will give me a gift. Usually they are the sons and daughters of teachers. If I’m lucky, it will buy me a Carmel Frappuccino. If I’m not, they made it themselves. One year a student gave me a broach that he found. He told me it was a cougar- our school mascot, but it was a jaguar. And since I’m not 85, I never wore it. I think it is still in my desk somewhere.

My friend teaches at an affluent elementary school and every year she sends me pictures of her swag. Spa Finder gift certificates, Coach Bags, gift cards to restaurants and bottle upon bottles of wine. I’m not jealous though. She usually gives me the wine she doesn’t like. I’ll drink anything.

So on this Monday morning, I was already a little bummed at having forgotten about the free pancakes when I began teaching my class. As I distributed their new monthly calendars, I mentioned that this was their last instructional calendar when a student, let’s call him Peter, said, “Good. I hate this class.”

I stopped and turned to face him.

“Thank you, Peter.” I said. “That really made me feel good.”

He mumbled an apology.

Now first of all, I know that teachers are told NEVER to use sarcasm in the classroom. But say that to any high school teacher and they will laugh in your face. Also, I technically wasn’t using sarcasm, it was more verbal irony, BUT in hindsight, I probably should have avoided that too but ONLY because Peter takes everything very literally. Like an elementary school student, he does not get irony or sarcasm.

In the nine months I have known him, this is what I have learned. Every class he takes out about a dozen pencils-each is about 3-4 inches long- and lines them up on his desk. He also takes out his pencil sharpener and continues to whittle each one down to a pointy stump. He then takes said pencils and stabs holes in his binder. When he writes sentences for his vocabulary quizzes, they are all about cats. He loves Minecraft. Peter reminds me of a sixth grade boy.

Peter came to our school as a new student to the area. He had previously been in a much smaller school system. From the first time I met him, I questioned whether or not he was placed accurately in “honors” English. I wasn’t the only one. My student intern was concerned. The counselor was concerned. The only one who didn’t seem concerned was his mom who swore that he belonged in honors. Throughout the year, I have been in contact with his mother probably more than any other student this year. We have spoken on the phone, emailed one another, and had face-to-face parent teacher conferences. Peter struggles to get his homework done and has barely maintained a D, but he has passed mostly due to my efforts to communicate with his mother and her support.

As any teacher knows, parent communication is a time-consuming part of our job requirement. At the high school level, with 160+ students, it is an area I work to improve every year because every year there is room for improvement. (Similar to how every New Year, I resolve to floss my teeth more.)

So when Peter declared that he hated my class, it bothered me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I know that not every student is going to love my class. I also know that not every student is going to love English, or love me. But until you have tried in my class, I don’t think you have a right to judge it. Much like a food critic can’t review a dish he hasn’t eaten, Peter has not earned the right to pass judgement on my class.

I also don’t think that Peter hates my class. I don’t think he likes that he isn’t doing well in it. I don’t think he likes when I email his mother and she makes him do his homework instead of playing video games. But like a juvenile kid, I think Peter spoke before thinking and I think he wanted to be a little mean.

Next year, Peter is not taking an honors English class. This is probably a good thing, but it also is going to present him with more struggles. Peter will still not do his homework. His peers, in a regular class, are likely not going to be as accepting of him. For Peter, who has struggled with bullying in the past, this worries me. His teacher might not make as much of an effort to communicate with Peter’s mom as I have. Next year, Peter might authentically be in the position to say, “I hate this class.”

For Teacher Appreciation Week, I don’t expect a lot. I do, however, expect a lot as a teacher. I expect students to try. I expect that they do their best. I expect that they treat each other (and me) with respect. And that includes following the age old adage: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m headed to that luncheon before all the pizza is gone.

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