I do not often think of movies that are older than my students, but recently, Men In Black served me well. At the high school I work at in Chicago, teachers were asked to sign up and give short presentations to the rest of the faculty and staff about small successes they have had in fulfilling the mission of our school.
The Google Doc to sign up went live during the meeting and I jumped to the final slot, at the very end of the school year. Not surprisingly, other teachers were there, too. Better to punt this project until next semester.
Then I thought, what am I doing? I should be doing just the opposite. It was Ignatius’ instruction that whenever we find ourselves clinging too tightly to any one idea or object, that we ought actually to desire the opposite. So there I was, the first to present at our very next meeting.
During my presentation, I played a clip from Men in Black, in which Will Smith shoots a school girl in the head, rather than the large aliens who surrounded her. Annoyed, the test administrators indignantly asked for an explanation, which Smith readily and comically provides. Smith attributes the best of intentions to the alien creatures and becomes alarmed by the presence of an out-of-place school girl, rather than the other way around, as anticipated by the test givers.
The clip highlights an important aspect of teaching high school. Just as Will Smith is given the opportunity to explain his thought process, high school teachers must continually talk through a student’s decisions and behaviors rather than simply issuing JUGS, demerits, or detentions. A student must know why they are being punished, why what they did, or seemed to have done, was wrong, and how to make relationships right that may have been compromised through their actions.
If given a chance to share their side of the story, just as Smith was in the movie, students and teachers may actually reach some common ground of understanding. Perhaps the pencil thrown across the room was not meant to be an attack, but an assistance to someone who needed a writing utensil. Perhaps a student with two identical worksheets is checking the work of a classmate, rather than copying another’s work. Perhaps the student with headphones on is listening to the book on YouTube, rather than her favorite type of music. Perhaps. Perhaps not, but without a conversation, no clarity can even be hoped for in any of these situations.
I’ve also found it best to have these conversations 1-on-1, either in the hallway or at a near-whisper in the classroom. Calling a student out in front of his or her peers doesn’t work, as it creates a stage and a spotlight, and thus a performance. The student, singled out, becomes more concerned with looking smart or cool in front of their peers rather than addressing the more important issue at hand. Sincerity and honesty are not fostered, at least not for high school students, when everyone is listening in on their business. Then again, let’s be honest with ourselves: who wants to be called out in front of his or her peers? A little discretion goes a long way.
Might these tips be applicable not just to teacher-student relationships, but nearly any relationship? How differently would we navigate our day, and all the relationships within it, if we gave one another the benefit of the doubt that Smith gives to the aliens? How often do we treat those closest to us, friends, family, and colleagues, far worse than we should?
As we begin this new year and new semester, let us be sure to give those around us the chance to explain themselves, no matter how clearly it may appear to us that they have done something wrong. Doing so need not be a ridiculously optimistic clarion call, but an honest hope that others will do the same for us when the tables turn.
Cover image courtesy FlickrCC found here.