All That Humanity in the Classroom

’08 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow and National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) James Liou submitted this blog article that focuses on the often-neglected third R in the educational triad of Rigor, Relevance, and Relationships. In this piece, he reflects on the tender moments between lessons that teachers speak wistfully to one another about.

Liou picture with students

All too often they get lost in the bigger policy discussions about public education reform: the moments of levity in class, the conversations between teacher and student or student and student that take place in all the spaces during and between instruction. That’s what teachers understand, what the best of us really love most. When we teach—even when pressed or driven by initiatives and reform—we don’t forget that it’s all about being responsive, affectionate, and motivating to students as individuals, as people. What makes teaching so challenging, exasperating, and exhilarating is that we teach students, not content.

I observed a number of these memorable interactions as I sat in on a recent high school math class in Boston:

Sitting behind a few students in this particular statistics class, one boy took a moment after the teacher’s instructions to turn to the girl next to him to say with an extra dash of gravity, “This is your future.” Smiling with preternatural adult-like concern and a mock fatherly tone. Looking back and seeing me, she responded, wide-eyed, “Oh, we’re supposed to be copying this??” to the good-natured laughter of students around her.

A few moments later, the teacher paid a compliment to a student who had clearly summarized the relationship between a fit, a residual, and the fitted value in a least-square regression problem. “I couldn’t have said it any better myself,” the teacher offered. The recipient of that complement beamed, with her head cradled in her hands, framing a giant smile. There was enough wattage there to turn the head of another girl next to her, who rolled her eyes jokingly in response.

And another connecting interaction. One student was upset about what appeared to a blood stain on her paper, likely some kind of food stain or the result of that all too common teacher injury—the dreaded papercut. She complained in class, exciting the teacher who encouraged them to take the sample to their upcoming forensics class. “Look at that!” he continued, “Be-autiful. Math and science together, like cats and dogs!” There was a mix of student smiles and groans at the enthusiasm. Two boys who sat next to me took it elsewhere. The brown-skinned student next to me quipped to his white-skinned peer, “How about black and white?” A head shake indicating mock disapproval and a full out hug given in faux, over-the-top apology. They were clearly friends joking. “You going to lunch after?” one of them said.

I didn’t even have to wait to know the answer to that one.

James Liou, NBCT
Peer Assistant
Boston Public Schools

James Liou is an ’08 Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education.

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate yeacher Liou’s article in light of age-dependent behavior among a class of high-school students. His observation could also be replicated in diffent systems, such as here in California, where attitudes among students are highly influenced by perceptions involving fictional portrayals of lifestyles among students with learning difficulties (grade spcefic).

    Also, I ask him to comment or further his reports under a collaborative effort to USDOE at improving a majority of assorted types of on-site student competency within learning environments concentrating not so much on consistency in layers of aptitude tests at the K-12 levels but at behavior awareness between competititive personalities within grade level peer class situations. That could involve separations between disfunctional and immature students and gifted and high acheivement college and university-prep students who, apparently, are suffering under negative press allocated towards students because of perceived bullying, interference involving quietude and privacy issues outside of school and an increase of violence in high schools in the U.S.


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