Embrace the Back Row

Embrace the Back Row

The start of the school year is a time to reflect on our past practice and relationships with studen

I once watched a professional dancer and choreographer lead a dance class for middle school girls. As the complexity of the dance steps increased, so did the restlessness and inattention of the girls farthest from their instructor. During a break I remarked to the teacher, "There seems to be a mutiny in the back row," to which he shrugged and said, "There's always a back row."

Those words have haunted me ever since.

Can the back row be avoided? While it might not be possible to engage every student at all times, shouldn't teachers try to do so?

Schools are full of all sorts of kids. Some are a bit more eccentric than others. Others are more needy or less attractive. Some lack motivation while others are so enthusiastic about learning that they can seem like pests. The start of the school year is a time to reflect on our past practice and relationships with former students. Such introspection will help guide the types of human interactions that may have a profound impact on the lives of the children in your care.

Some kids will learn more from their teacher's humanity than from the proscribed curriculum.

Daniel was a nervous, yet articulate first grader whose personality quirks were set to cause a heap of trouble.

The school's child study team had prescribed that a pen be built around Daniel's desk because he didn't like being crowded by other people. This "pathology" was based on the observation that he said, "I don't like it when you stand so close to me" when he felt crowded. Daniel's method of addressing his phobia seemed quite rational to everyone, except the child study team. Thankfully, his gifted teacher objected to the pen and created meaningful activities in which Daniel could experience the benefits of working collaboratively, even closely, with his peers.

John was a gifted kid who read at 2, programmed computers by 8, spoke at national conference by 10 and was doing cancer research by 12. His thirst for knowledge was unquenchable and his talents limitless. Despite his good cheer and the generosity of his parents, John was victimized by teachers, hell-bent on finding something he was not good at, and by middle school administrators who did little to protect him from bullies. I am confident that John will use his PhD/M.D. and sense of social justice to make the world a better place.

Thomas is a kindergartner who not only reads like a pro but also is fascinated by geography and flags. He can locate any location in an atlas and recite the population density of Gabon. It took his teacher about six months to acknowledge that Thomas could read. One day, Thomas' teacher made a gesture to acknowledge the student's interests. He wrote, "Does Thomas know the capital of Colombia?" on the back of a homework paper. Thomas wrote, "Bogota. Does Mr. G. know the capital of Burkina Faso?" That playful challenge brought an abrupt halt to the game between teacher and student.

Michael, an incarcerated 17-year-old, was said to be illiterate. He installed software, programmed robots and demonstrated all sorts of intelligence. A few days before his release, he typed a 12,000-word autobiography. When questioned about whether or not he could read and write, Michael replied, "I can read and write, but I was a slow reader, and I didn't like reading about bunnies. I like reading about NASA."

Gestures matter. Kindness matters. Reaching out to kids who need a bit more attention or occasionally laughing at the class clown may provide the spark that spurs a student to greatness. Some kids will learn more from you through the sharing of your humanity, than from the proscribed curriculum.

Celebrate diversity; find the right balance between being amused by a child's quirk and ignoring an annoying habit or two. Respect the little people who bless your classroom.

Gary was a fourth grader who realized that painting everything black could get him evaluated by the child-study team on a regular basis. His teacher tied him to his chair with a jump rope just two years earlier. So, as we go forth into this new school year please do all you can to embrace the back row. Perhaps that slightly wacky, even annoying, kid will grow up to do great things. Maybe he'll even edit an education magazine.

Gary Stager, gary@stager.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.


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