My teacher corps experience can be summed up largely by what I have learned:
Distance from God- We are often so quick to recognize what we perceive to be flaws and inadequacies in the behavior of our students. They frustrate us. They irritate us. They disappoint us. They just seem so distant from the goals and ideals that we set out before them. And we just don't get it. We know that getting an education can open up doors of opportunity for them. We know that success in future employment will require them to stay within certain behavioral boundaries of respect. So why don't they listen to us.... Why can't they see that the answer is so obvious and that ignoring it comes with life changing negative consequences.
It took me a while to come to the conclusion, that the distance we perceive between ourselves and our students is infinitely smaller than the actual distance between ourselves and God. God knows what it takes to find happiness in this life and the next. He knows what potential we each have to obtain this happiness. And he knows just how frequently we choose to act against what we have learned to be right trying to act in our own (seemingly) selfish best interest.
But like our students, we fall incredibly short of what we know to be right. The main difference is that the gap between us and God is infinitely greater than the perceived gap between us and our students. How frustrated he must be.
How we act like our students in class- It is odd how Teacher Corps participants' biggest complaints about their students mirror their own behavior in college classes. We hate it when students are constantly leaving to go to the bathroom, without permission, only to be gone fifteen to twenty minutes during the middle of our lessons. And yet, during Saturday classes I watch as an almost constant stream of (typically the same) Teacher Corps members walks out without permission, during the middle of lessons, only to return fifteen or twenty minutes later. Hmm. It drives us crazy when rather than listening to our lessons we see students texting away in the back of the room or trying to get away with listening to their ipod during class. Yet, during Saturday classes, just look around the room. Most Teacher Corps participants have their Macbooks open playing on facebook, watching a sporting event or online shopping. We can't stand it when a student becomes disrespectful to an important guest that we bring into our classroom. The guest receives no compensation and is just doing it as a favor to us, or because they believe in the students. But instead of greeting the guest our students mock or disrespect or challenge what they are saying just to show out. And yet, I have watched in agony as Teacher Corps participants have offended some of our most high profile guests by asking accusatory ignorant disrespectful questions.... (and by questions, I mean self-promoting ideological accusations) I admit that I have very little sympathy for the classroom complains of Teacher Corps participants who exhibit the same level of disrespect that they lament in their own classrooms. I really thing they should be videoed during a Saturday class and have to evaluate themselves as a “student”.
Love reciprocity- One of the more powerful lessons with which I will walk away from Teacher Corps is that Love does not have to be returned to be of value. There are some students that are easy to love because they are respectful, hard-working, kind and participating. There are others who are more challenging, that are very disrespectful, rude, lazy and refuse to join the class. Finding a way to genuinely love each of them anyway is a very difficult task,... but it is a worthy one.
It is easy to love the loveable students, because to some degree we sense that love to be returned. I suppose that is the reward, a reciprocation of your love. The great task, however, is to love the unlovable... to be kind to the unkind... to be respectful to the disrespectful. Perhaps this is the greatest love of all. Jesus, indeed died for the sins of many who would spend their time on Earth ignoring Him, willfully disobeying him and in some cases openly mocking Him. Does that mean that his love was wasted? On the contrary, I would argue that is what makes his pure love so powerful.
Bulgaria's version of Hell- Bulgaria has a version of their culture in Hell that I believe illustrates the tragedy of opportunity at many of the schools we teach. In their version, a Bulgarian dies and is escorted down to Hell. He finds that Hell is full of jars filled with people from various countries. He then sees that on top of each large jar are demons who poke people back down into the jars when they try to escape the torment and sentence of Hell. Each time a person is boosted up by others trying to escape, the demons poke them back down with pitchforks. When they get to Bulgaria's Jar, the man notices that Bulgaria has no such demons and just an open lid. “Why”the man asks. Then he notices that any time a Bulgarian tries to escape the jar, they are dragged back down not by the demons, but by the other Bulgarians who couldn't stand the idea of someone finding a freedom or success that they are to be denied.
Many of us in Teacher Corps have experienced watching students with real potential, ability and desire have their dreams halted by an unplanned pregnancy or trouble with the law. As a teacher it is heartbreaking to watch someone rise above the waves of poor performance and apathy to reach for bigger dreams, only to find them being dragged down back into the jar.
The right of the student who wants to be there- In America, every single child deserves the opportunity to grow to their greatest potential. This is why I joined the Mississippi Teacher Corps. It is painfully obvious that in much of America this opportunity is shaped by your zip code and skin color. However, the greatest injustice I see comes in a slightly different form than we typically identify. We spend so much time, money and attention in attempting to repeatedly extend this opportunity to those troubled students who refuse to embrace it and who refuse to work for it. While this is happening, there are a group of eager and respectful students who are losing their right to learn because the learning environment is constantly being interrupted by the behavior of those who don't. In many cases, with hard work and patience, it is able to reach both groups. But when this goal is not attainable, I feel that we should honor the right of the student who wants to take advantage of what you have over the student who refuses. And yet, I feel that in our current system it is those students who act out, refuse to participate and sleep during school who get the most money, opportunities and attention. Compulsory education should not mean that disrespectful students who refuse to participate have the right to prevent those who want to be there from learning. We should defend the rights of the students who want to be there much more aggressively than we defend the opportunities of those students who refuse to embrace them. No matter how badly we want it for them,.... no matter how creatively we can motivate them..... No matter how compulsory we make their presence.... They still have the right to choose.
While it is true that you cannot draw water from a dry well, in Mississippi I have found an ocean of talent in it’s forgotten children and communities. Then if the problem is not in a lack of water, what is it? This well needs to be primed with the talent, leadership and compassion of those who see the potential in these children. Dr. Mullins and other great leaders have worked hard to create pockets of hope in Mississippi through programs like the Mississippi Teacher Corps. Though seeing the depth of the problem has been daunting, there is a great hope.
As long as their are people who believe in the miracle of the human soul and the value of every child, we will continue to prime this pump until the waters of success spring up in the neglected communities of the forgotten children of Mississippi .