On being nicer

Be nice 1

I became a teacher at the tender age of 45. All puffed up from my real-world experiences, and despite Welcome Back, Kotter, Boston Public, and Stand and Deliver, to name just a few depictions of struggles in the classroom, I figured teaching inner-city high school kids would be cake. Sigh…

When my on-camera TV career fizzled – a direct correlation to my nearing 40 – I spent a few years underemployed, until several acquaintances, at about the same time, enthusiastically suggested I become a teacher. Now I had never given teaching any thought. Zero! I laughed off the idea. After all, I was a dyslexic, academically underachieving high school student – who I must add here did pretty damn well in college after my brother bet me I’d flunk out the first semester.

But then my financial situation became more tenuous: you try paying the bills by officiating youth sports and working for seven bucks an hour as a part-time reporter at a small local newspaper. So, I went back to school.

It took me two years to get my teaching certification, and  before I ever stepped foot in a real classroom – I hadn’t even had the chance to do my eight weeks of student teaching – I was hired to teach video production and journalism in a high school communication arts magnet program in Phoenix, Arizona.

I learned quickly that I had replaced a beloved teacher who was popular for throwing pizza parties and allowing the students to do pretty much anything they wanted. Then, I stepped in, spouting responsibility and deadlines and maturity and professionalism.

I realized just how bad things were when one day a diminutive teen – the prettiest and most outspoken child in the room – stood up and declared that the students didn’t need me. That they had learned all they needed to know from their previous teacher. Then, she walked out, in the middle of class. To my horror, every one of my students followed her.

And so I stood at the front of the classroom, staring at all those empty seats, and I started to cry. A few “poor me” moments passed before the door opened. A tiny teacher, the “elder statesman” of the department who always had a faint whiff of nicotine wafting about her, watched me above reading glasses attached to a rainbow-colored beaded chain.

“They just left!” I motioned to the empty seats.

She nodded, walked over, and placed her hand on my shoulder. “It’ll be fine,” she said.

I turned away, embarrassed that she had seen tears slipping down my cheeks.

I continued to bulldoze my way through school days, expounding on life in the “real world” and reminding my students that if they wanted to succeed and make something of themselves they had better get with the program.

It was then that another long-time teacher sat me down after what had been a particularly tough day in the classroom. “Have you considered being . . . nicer?” she asked.

Nicer? What do you mean?”

She leaned back in her chair. “Just . . . nicer. It might help.”

“Nicer. I’d spent my previous life in newsrooms and on ballfields as an official, where “nice” was never part of the equation. You did your job, deflected unkind comments, and never let anyone see you cry.

About five years ago, I once again found myself replacing a popular teacher. Predictably, the students – mostly seniors – rebelled against the changes I made and my style of teaching. Despite the fact that I was a much more experienced teacher now, I struggled. Everyday. By the end of the school year, I was exhausted. Some of my students wouldn’t even speak to me.

During the last week of the school year, we held a department awards ceremony, where we fed the students lunch and handed out plaques, honoring those who stood out. Then the seniors got up and spoke about their time in the program, about leaving their classmates as they headed out into the world, and about the teachers who meant so much to them.

I listened to all the kind words, and watched as the other teachers, eyes glistening, accepted accolades from their students. One after another, the seniors spoke. Some cried. A few nodded in my direction as they retook their seats, but none of them said anything about me.

Then one young man stood up and faced the group. I had been especially demanding of him over the years. He wanted to be a film director. I spent a lot of time critiquing his video productions. Outside of class, we’d work on college and scholarship applications. Sometimes we’d talk about the difficulties he’d had growing up and his time in foster care. I can’t recall exactly what he spoke about initially that day, but then I heard him say my name.

“And, Ms. Montgomery,” he beamed me a smile. “I think of her as mom.” Then he walked over and put his arms around me.

Nice, indeed.

I am now finishing up my 17th year in the classroom. As my students will tell you, I can sometimes be a tough teacher. I’m still demanding, at times. Though now, I find myself saying good morning to students I don’t even know, and I take the time to ask how things are going when a student seems down. It’s not that I no longer preach responsibility and deadlines and maturity and professionalism. It’s just that I’m…well…nicer.

Anne Montgomery’s new YA novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other?  The Scent of Rain is available at http://www.amphoraepublishing.com/product/the-scent-of-rain/ and wherever books are sold.

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