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A Case of Privilege: A Pastoral Confession

There were reasons to believe that one of my students need to be referred for testing to be considered for additional resources. There were trainings engrained in my mind that told me as a third grade teacher part of my responsibility was to catch these types of situations to give students the best opportunity to access their potential and their abilities.

And so I did what teachers did and scheduled a parent teacher conference. I knew that there was something that had happened to my student during his mother’s pregnancy. I knew that the symptoms I was seeing were textbook examples of fetal alcohol syndrome or a drug-related infiltration from mother to child.

I knew.

She filled out the paperwork and when the question asked, “Was your pregnancy normal?” she checked yes. As I watched her glide over the form, my eyes bore through the little check she had just made. As I tried to keep my demeanor welcoming, my anger flashed. How could she say she had a normal pregnancy? There is absolutely no way that her child was not exposed to some kind of drugs or alcohol. It’s just not possible. She’s lying because she doesn’t want to confess to what she did while she was pregnant. 

I knew I was right. I knew she was wrong.

I told colleagues my righteous indignation flaring. How could we do what was best for her child if she didn’t answer honestly? How could we get anywhere if she lied to us, the very people trying to help her child?

And suddenly I was sitting in a chair at Transitions Homeless Shelter across from a woman who was pregnant. A woman who was pregnant and homeless. A woman who was pregnant and starving. A woman who was pregnant with no healthcare, no access to birth control, and with very limited access to prenatal care. A woman so consumed with the exhaustion of survival of finding food every day or finding a place to sleep each night that she could not even consider what was best for the child growing within.

My God, forgive me. I confessed.

My privilege was so blinding in that first year of teaching that I couldn’t imagine a woman who was pregnant who didn’t know any other community, but a community with alcohol and drugs. I couldn’t imagine a woman, a mom who didn’t know how to best care for her body while she was sustaining another life. I couldn’t imagine a woman who couldn’t read or research to find out about what her body needed to help her child. I couldn’t imagine a woman so scared of losing her child that she filling out of form in front of mandatory reporter overwhelmed her with anxiety. I couldn’t imagine because of my vast amount of privilege.

Instead of peace, I offered her anxiety. Instead of hope, I offered condemnation. Instead of scaffolded learning, I offered her resentment and belittlement calling her ill-informed. Instead of love, I offered her disdain.

Thanks be to God for second chances, years later.

On Ending Up in the Middle of Conflict

The Spring of my student teaching, I was interviewing for my first job as a bona fide school teacher. I was terrified and excited and hopeful and nervous. I had chosen to ask for a student teacher placement in Spartanburg, over an hour drive from Furman, because I wanted to work in Spartanburg school districts eventually. When I was asked to interview for an open position at the school where I completed my student teaching, I was thrilled.

And then I found out, I wouldn’t be interviewing with the principal I had been working with for a whole year. He was moving schools. I was going to interview with the new principal. Although I was conflicted about having to start all over developing a new relationship with my administrator, I knew there were many other teachers who had know the previous principal on both a personal and professional level I had not. I knew it was going to be easier for me to start over than for them.

What I didn’t know is that a change in administration (especially the principal and vice-principal) is a drastic change for an elementary school, especially an elementary school that had been not met adequate process for the past 2 years. The other thing I didn’t know was how very resistant to change people are.

I was offered the job of second grade teacher, and I took it thrilled that I was going to be a professional teacher and ecstatic that I was going to have my very own classroom. It was a hard start to the year, but I had been prepared for that. What I hadn’t been prepared for was the overwhelming atmosphere of conflict that had slowly engulfed our school. For me, it was a palpable difference between the school I had student taught in and the school I was teaching in. There had been that much change. Conflict had impacted the school that drastically.

The reasons that conflict happen are many and every participating party played a part, so find the one source of conflict was impossible. There was no way to unravel why and how because there were too many levels.

I have heard more people than not describe themselves as wary of conflict, scared even of conflict, but that wasn’t my reaction. While I didn’t want to end up in the middle of the conflict, I was walking around in the pervasive periphery of the conflict…everyone was. I began to do silly things that I thought might change the way people were interacting with each other. I brought in bagels from Panera one Friday morning. I wrote notes to colleagues expressing my gratitude for their help in my first year of teaching. I attempted to bake muffins. Little things that I hoped would change the overall feel among the staff.

In reality, I have no idea if those things worked for anyone else, but they changed me. They changed my attitude from one of hopelessness and negativity to one of problem-solving.

Somehow I knew I needed those changes for the sake of my students and my classroom. I knew it was my job to stand between them and the conflict that was surrounding them. I knew it was my job to stop the weight of the conflict from falling on their shoulders.

Being in that environment during my first year of teaching was difficult, but it taught me a lot about how change impacts people and environments, especially work environments. Being able to anticipate in part where those conflicts are going to arise and work through the inevitable conflict before it takes over makes all the difference.

Change isn’t inherently bad. Conflict isn’t inherently bad. Both are a part of life.

If we can change our view of conflict and our reactions to conflict, there might just be less of it in the world, but that would take admitting that we, ourselves, need to change. And that’s a conflict some people just aren’t ready for.

A Semester of ESL

I always knew that teaching would creep back into my life more fully once I graduated school, but I can’t say I anticipated teaching ESL, especially high school ESL. Now that the essays are graded and the grades are turned in, I have to admit that I’m sad my Monday afternoons won’t be filled with this group of kids.

Since this was their first year at the school, they all were required to take my class and many of them weren’t all that pleased to be there, but as we talked about my time in Germany, what prepositions to use for dates and times, we began to form an international community where it was safe to ask questions about noise makers (honestly, the noise maker that was in our room for test takers was something none of my 8 students had ever seen) and verb tenses and the definition of words.

When we talked about traditions, my European students were shocked to find out their Chinese classmates didn’t celebrate Christmas, nor did they have a break at this time of year from school. As they discovered this, they also discovered that all of the strange questions and comments they had received as outsiders or foreign exchange students had helped them understand not to assume anything about someone’s culture or experience, but rather to ask questions.

When we talked about what can be considered rude to teachers and not making the basketball team or the cheerleading squad, my hope is that they found a place that was a little less stressful and a little more like home because I remember how it feels to be an outsider and be the foreigner making the mistakes grammatically and culturally.

And maybe one day, they’ll be teaching a similar class in their home countries and offer the same for a class full of students.

Substitute Teaching

As school has started back, I’ve had the great opportunity to be in the classroom again as a substitute teacher. It is certainly a different kind of teaching experience because you are walking in cold not knowing students names, the material, or the social dynamics going on in the classroom. It’s a phenomenon that students certainly try to capitalize on as August notes in the book Wonder:

This wouldn’t have happened is Ms. Petosa had been there, of course, but there was a substitute teacher that day, and subs never really know what’s going on.

But for me, it’s an interesting puzzle. It certainly keeps me on my feet and keeps my teaching brain alive and well!