Last week my daughter came into the office where I was working, took one look at me, and said, “are you crying?”
And I said, “Yes.”
And she said, “why?”
And I said, “Well, I’ll tell you.”
And I said something like this:
After 30 years of teaching, one lesson I’ve learned is that relationships are everything. Excellent rapport with students is the secret sauce not only to connecting with students individually, but for keeping a whole class engaged and moving forward as a single living, breathing entity.
Everything else—commas, the Civil Rights Movement, The Pythagorean theory, The Great Gatsby–comes after that.
But that’s also why I’ve been struggling mightily with remote learning. I’d been despondent of late because an unusually high number of my students were not turning in assignments and not passing the class. I mean, I got it on some level; these are not easy times. We are in the middle of a global pandemic and I, too, was struggling with things like anxiety, motivation, and self-discipline. The lines between home and school were very blurry, at best. So it’s been hard to be productive. Furthermore, I was also hearing from other teachers that they were experiencing the same thing. I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know how to change it.
It’s extraordinarily difficult, though, to create connection with students over a Zoom call. At least for me. I prefer to honor individual students’ reasons for not turning on their cameras or electing not to unmute (and those reasons are both myriad and legitimate), and yet that makes it super challenging for me to teach only to a sea of black boxes with white names, especially since no one ever seems comfortable unmuting themselves for any kind of class discussion. I have often felt as if I am merely speaking “at” my laptop screen and making no connection at all.
This week, though, that changed–at least a little. I asked my 9th grade class to go to the TED Talk website and search for a talk on a subject they were interested in and fill out a graphic organizer on the talk. The truth is, I loveTED Talks. TED Talks are brilliant people talking about stuff they love, are passionate about, and are experts in. When I watch a TED Talk, I feel like my mind is expanding and that I’m learning. And I was hoping the same thing would happen for my students.
And it did.
The night the graphic organizer was due and I was poring over Google Classroom – the same day my daughter came in to the office and saw me in tears – I got the following email:
Dear Mr. Tricarico,
I hope your day is going well.
I found this TED Talk and I found it very interesting. I thought you might like it too. I found that this man speaks the truth. I thought it was cool when he said we don’t need to destroy or erase our statues and historical art but we need to amend them. If you want to watch it, the link is above. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
I clicked on the link. The TED Talk was by Titus Kaphar, an African-American artist who talked about how important it is to recognize the past and how, while we may not be able to change it, we can look back, learn from it, and amend what we know and recognize where the deficiencies lie and learn from what we were missing. He talked about his own struggles trying to be an artist and how, in a college art class, a teacher skipped the chapter in the textbook on Black painters because we “simply don’t have the time.”
At the edge of the stage was an old painting with several white people and one young black person. As he spoke, Kaphar took white paint and covered the artwork, painting over the white people in a way that encouraged us (forced us?) to focus on the young black figure. I was riveted. Kaphar’s TED Talk was powerful, thought-provoking, and moving.
But what moved me more was Krista’s email.
My first thought was, “I did it.”
I reached her.
I made her think.
I shared something with her that she found so powerful, the only thing she could think to do was to reach out to someone and share it back.
THAT is connecting.
THAT is creating a relationship.
THAT is learning.
THAT is why I became a teacher.
THAT is what school is all about.
Or at least it SHOULD be.
Because then I thought. . .
Our structure is all wrong.
In fact, in some ways our structure is totally failing our students.
Because this connection, this relationship, this wrestling with ideas and enlightenment, this experience that Krista had that caused her to learn and grow. . .
Will never be on any kind of test or assessment in this class.
Will never show up in a grade.
Will never show up on a standardized test.
And yet, I KNOW for a fact that Krista thought and learned and engaged with ideas in a way that will allow her to LOOK AT THE WORLD IN A TOTALLY DIFFERENT WAY as a result of something I asked her to do in my class.
And she gave me the gift of sharing that with me.
She let me know I’d reached her in some way.
And so, in the middle of struggling with remote learning, and a truckload of students not passing, and obsessing over how I wasn’t reaching anybody, I thought, “I did it.”
And that was the moment my daughter walked in the room. TZT
*Not her real name