Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Reflection on "A Pupil Points a Finger"

This is a Tuesday "Slice of Life" for Two Writing Teachers. Check out their website for lots more reflections on teaching.

I hope this isn't too "heavy" a slice. I read this article several weeks ago in my Sunday Washington Post Magazine and I can't seem to get it out of my head:  "A pupil points a finger. The teacher gets fired, his life re-routed. Now can they be buddies?" by Marc Fisher.

This article makes visible the complexities of teaching young children. When you teach, you are working with the child, the family, and the administration of your school. There are so many different demands, needs, perspectives. Does anyone really understand all that is happening in a single classroom? Everything that a teacher must consider?

Here is a very personal story about a student and his teacher and a whole lot of hurts.

I keep thinking about this. So - let's write!

Let me begin with a summation of the story:

September 2001,
at a public school in Washington, D.C.,
a 7 year old second grader accuses a teacher of pushing him to the floor.
The teacher is 22 years old, in his second year of teaching.
The teacher is arrested, there is a trial, he is acquitted;
though a civil lawsuit follows, which the city settles with the family.
In 2012, the then 18 year old student reconnects with the former teacher (now a lawyer) via Facebook: "I just want to say I apologize for everything that happened. I would really appreciate it if I could hear back from you." 
Now, 2015, these two adults - the once 7 year old second grader and his former teacher - are now friends.
Thus the subtitle, "The unlikely friendship."

I keep thinking about this.

How are they able to be friends?
How is a friendship possible?


Marc Fisher did a beautiful job with his writing, telling the story's facts and letting the reader decide his/her truth from the details. He is objective (as we expect from our journalists, right?) - detailing the story, providing insight, but not placing any blame. I felt empathy for the child, his family, his teacher.

Yes, it is a very personal story about a student and his teacher and a whole lot of hurts.

We learn about the seven year old student,
"His father, Joseph Ware, died when Raynard was 6, choked to death on pepper spray that police deployed against him in a robbery gone bad. The father - a drug user and seller who spent years in prison."

"His mother had three children by three men; Ware is determined not to have any children until he is married, and to marry once and forever. His father wasn't there 'to teach me to be a man.' "

"tagged as a troublemaker in need of special education, he as assigned to classes full of kids who had been labeled slow, disruptive, deficient."

" 'I used to have to punch him in his chest when he was little because he was off the chain,' [Raynard's Mom] says."

Imagine, only seven years old and already so challenged by life itself.

I keep thinking about this.

How is this little guy supposed to concentrate on math and literacy?
Are we teaching the whole child? 
How well do our classrooms support children with fragile emotional health?
Is he the only child in the class from such challenging circumstances?
Where are the school psychologists? The counselors? 
Are we equipping teachers with tools, techniques, and support for the social-emotional struggles of children? 
Does the whole staff work together to support these students?
How do we make the classroom a place that the child wants to be?

I keep thinking about this.

Are we building relationships with the family? 
Do we treat them as partners in education?
How strong is our school community?
How do we build healthy communities?
How do we, as teachers, interact with families that are so challenged?
Do we treat them with equal respect, afford them equal dignity?
Do we help the child and family to feel loved, to trust? 
Where is the family support? The parent education?
How do schools help families with discipline?

We learn about the former teacher,

"an idealist fresh out of Yale who thought he was going to help transform the lives of poor, inner-city children"

"Mr. Kaplowitz's room was, by all accounts, a zoo. Even in a school where nearly every male teacher was accused of grabbing, pushing or hitting a child, Kaplowitz stood out: Six of his 18 students had emotional or learning problems, and teachers, administrators, parents and students knew he was unable to keep order."

"This was the fifth allegation that he had touched a student."

"Raynard asked his teacher for permission to go to the bathroom to get some water, a ploy he had used before to get out of class. He asked and he asked - at least 30 times."

"'I never hurt a kid," Kaplowitz says. 'But I was not a good teacher, and I yelled a lot. I was in the survival mind-set of getting through the day. If there's one thing I try to block out, it's what a lousy teacher I was most of the time.'"

Imagine this teacher, so young and inexperienced, leading this classroom.

I keep thinking about this.

Why wasn't the administration more present?
Who should the teacher have turned to, when things started to spiral in his classroom?
How alone and abandoned did this new teacher feel?
How many teachers feel this way?
Where is the teacher training?How do we prepare teachers for teaching?
Where is the mentoring? 
Does the teacher understand children's developmental needs?
What are signs of traumatic stress in children?
Where is professional development about how to discipline and child development? 
Where is support from colleagues? 
How do teachers learn from one another? 
What opportunities are there to share information and ideas, especially about challenging children?

I keep thinking about this.

Why aren't these students with a more experienced teacher? 
Where are the more experienced teachers? 

We hear a lot about teaching the "whole child" but I can't imagine this ever working unless it involves the "whole school" - everyone investing in children. No teacher should feel isolated and helpless with a classroom of challenging children. No children deserve to be isolated with a inexperienced teacher.

I keep thinking about this,
thinking about the challenges of teaching.
How hard it is to be in community together - teachers, students, families.
So many different life stories,
so many different perspectives,
so many different needs.

This article brought to mind one of my favorite quotes:
"To reconcile conflicting parties, we must understand the suffering of both sides. If we take sides, reconciliation is impossible. And humans want to take sides. That is why the situation gets worse and worse. People who are still available to both sides need only do one thing: go to one side and tell all about the suffering endured by the other side, and then go to the other side and tell all about the suffering endured by this side. That is our chance for peace." [Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn]

For me, the extraordinary thing about this story was
the two reconciling parties themselves -
the student, Raynard Ware, and
the former teacher, Josh Kaplowitz.
They seem to be able to suspend their biases, their preconceived notions, their insistence on their own personal truth, and reach out towards one another in peace.
It is an extraordinary thing.

Marc Fisher, through his writing, and
Raynard Ware and Josh Kaplowitz, through their friendship,
show how difficult and beautiful this listening to one another can be.

If we really want to improve education,
all of us,
no matter our role -
student and family, teacher, administrator, or policy maker,
all of us
needs to be available to all sides...to listen and hear one another.
To be in community together.
It is essential.


  1. WOW! Thanks for sharing that. It sounds like both are now able to look at that time in their lives and see the part they played. I think it's great that both have moved forward, and have found each other.

    I agree: the newest people get the toughest assignments because they don't have a voice to speak for themselves. The people who have been around for a while think they have earned a year without problems. I wish more people thought the opposite, that their experience will help the children so that group of kids won't be someone's "bad year" forever. I have awesome literacy coaches this year, and I wish more people had access to this sort of peer support. I know it would have made such a difference for me in the first 5 years!

  2. I experienced a similar first year. In fact, I left teaching for a year to soul search...it wasn't what I signed up for and yet, I made it back. I vowed that I would always support teachers (new or struggling to the greatest extent possible...

  3. Turth: "all of us
    needs to be available to all sides...to listen and hear one another.
    To be in community together."

    That is some story. I'm going to have to read it myself, Maureen.

  4. That's a crazy story.

    I appreciate how you told the story here, bit by bit, and then inserted all your wonderings. This might be a cool exercise for kids to try, too.

  5. It's interesting that when I write about the different approaches my school takes, many say they 'wish' it could be that way. One sentence you wrote caught me: "We hear a lot about teaching the "whole child" but I can't imagine this ever working unless it involves the "whole school". The way many things work is because "all" people are involving themselves toward success to the child. It isn't "this teacher's" children, they are all of our children. It saddens me how isolated teachers are, & those younger ones are often given the most challenging children. I love the quote you shared by Thich Nhat Hahn. We must listen to everyone. Thanks for telling about this, Maureen.

  6. It is extraordinary. Thank you for sharing this story. Thank you for sharing your reflections.