Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Putting the function back in dysfunctional

Recently, someone posted the following comment on my blog:

"What is wrong with your students' families that they are not teaching these basic skills long before the kids show up in your classroom? Are they just so dysfunctional that they don't know how to raise their children up right?"

My first reaction was to rush to their defense. After all, only I'm allowed to badmouth my students; no one else gets that privilege! My second reaction was to think about the rather wide cultural divide that separates me from my students. The majority of them -- I think the figure hovers somewhere around 80% -- are from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. And an even greater majority of them are from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. When their families encourage them to fight back, to hit someone who hits them, I believe that their intent is not to raise their children to be dysfunctional; their intent is to raise their children to be survivors.

It is true, though, that a lot of my students come from troubled backgrounds. I have students whose fathers are not around because they're in jail for molesting family members or dealing drugs. I have students whose fathers are not around because they're abusive and have restraining orders against them. I have students whose parents fail to bring them to school on time -- or at all -- because they can't get themselves out of bed in the morning, let alone their children. I have students whose parents are on drugs, or drink too much. I have 10-year-old students whose mothers are 23, or whose mothers are dead at the hands of their fathers, or whose mothers have boyfriends that neglect or, worse, abuse them. I have students whose parents work more than one job and students whose parents have more children than they can probably take care of.

So yes, I have students whose families are dysfunctional. And I'm constantly having to remind myself that when my students do something that I consider outrageously offensive and then stare at me blankly like they have no idea what they've done wrong, the great majority of the time they really do have no idea what they've done wrong. I have students who genuinely do not grasp the difference between positive and negative attention. I have students who hit back because that's what they've been taught to do. I have students who behave inappropriately because that's all they know.

So it's my job, not just to teach them how to diagram a sentence, but how to get along with each other in a world full of people. Because most of all -- even on the days when it seems hopeless -- maybe especially those days -- I have students who are full of possibility.

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