I’ve been thinking a lot lately about he students that I work with. Many of them would be termed as “at-risk” or “disadvantaged”. And there are some correlations to both those references of which I cannot deny. But despite their disadvantages in life, they still deserve the same respect as any individual. I think at WCHS (Westwood Cyber High School) we try to offer them a different environment than they’ve ever been exposed to in any other previous educational setting. The kids walk into our computer lab much differently now than they did on their first day.
Many of my students must be so tough in the outside world. They are ready to fight, yell, defend themselves, or do whatever it takes just to get by or even high. The kids are judged everywhere they go: by each other for their toughness and exterior; by their parents for their poor life choices; by society for their tainted language or immature demeanor; by store owners for their potential and assumed kleptomania; by religious sectors for becoming teenage mothers; from previous teachers who felt that they were not worth the extra time to be listened to; but when they walk into WCHS we strive not to judge them. We try to create such an open and approachable environment.
Our students are required to come into the computer lab at least twice a week for at least an hour each time in order to get extra help in subjects that they may struggle with at home, but many students come for hours at times, and some even all day everyday. Our lab is a truly supportive environment—which I find to be the most beneficial piece of our program.
Young mothers bring their babies and the mentors (teachers) joyfully play with them, we do not look at these teen mothers as failures, but rather we look at them and let them know that we care about their lives—no matter what choices they have made. Special Education students come in, and they are given one-on-one individual attention. Troubled teens walk in with an attitude, but we listen to stories about past troubles, and we offer them words of advice. Self-motivated students come in, and we help them make a plan to graduate as soon as possible. Students who were once terrorized at their previous schools come in, and we give them their space, but we let them know that we are there if they need us. We get all different types of students, and despite the reasons that they decided to enroll in a cyberschool, they all have one main thing in common: they don’t want to be judged.
Throughout my years teaching English in a traditional high school, I saw endless displays of disrespect and disregard toward the students. So many teachers seemed as though they were against the students; that the students just made their lives harder, gave them more work, and induced massive headaches.
Some of the students that come into our computer lab are really shy at first. I often try to provoke some type of conversation, but for some that are shy, this can sometimes be a challenging task. There is always one question though, no matter whom I’ve asked, it always elicits a passionate response, “So what brought you to WCHS?” I always get an array of responses that include reasons why they didn’t care for their previous school (typical teenager, right?), but upon further inquiry, I always end up hearing a string of similar stories that include the topic of disrespectful teachers. I can’t argue with them in regard to the blatant disrespect because it’s something that I’ve seen firsthand multiple times; although, I always give an unbiased, professional response. I don’t encourage their ranting, but rather I just listen. I’ve heard endless stories from students about how they felt like their teachers thought that they were better than them or above them in some way—teachers that showed no respect.
As teachers, I think we need to begin to listen to our students. We need to respect what they say and think, whether we believe that they are right or wrong. And although they may be dramatic and often immature, they still deserve our respect. We can’t get anything out of our students if we don’t put anything into them. Knowledge, and dates, and processes, and facts are not all we need to put into them. Sometimes all they need is our ear, our trust, and our acceptance. Teenagers are already self-conscious enough—the last thing they need is one more adult telling them that they’re music, clothes, habits, or speech is bad. How can we expect them to be successful when we look at so many aspects of their lives as failures? Sometimes I think some teachers need to be less concerned with what they are teaching their students, and more concerned with how they are teaching them.