Context

First, let me apologize to you cyber friends of mine for my lack of blogging this week.  The reason for this is my aforementioned preference for YAKKING every half hour.  Makes blogging difficult.  Makes everything difficult, really.  Thanks to you all for you sweet, supportive, tough-love comments about getting over the guilt.  Sometimes you just need a good friend (or a couple hundred) to tell you to get over it and move on.  So, thanks for being those friends.  Also, thanks for all the suggestions about Flintstone vitamins!  I got the gummies last night and not only are they delicious but they were much gentler on my stomach.  Worked like a charm!

Now, back to today.

Tonight I had my first open house at school.  I was actually a little worried about it because…well…parents are scary.  And I say that as a parent.  I know that insane need to defend, protect, and rationalize on behalf of your child – even if they are failing.  Or not turning in work.  Or not participating in class.  As a parent, you just can’t shake that defense mechanism and so I was worried I’d be bombarded by parents blaming me for their students poor performance in class.

But I wasn’t!

The parents that showed up were pleasant, grateful, conversational, and involved.  I wish all parents were like that.

I know I said I wouldn’t be able to share anything with you about my job for security reasons, but I simply have to tell you about something that happened tonight.  Because it changed me not just as a teacher, but as a person and as a parent myself.

There is a student in one of my classes who is having some problems.  He’s failing because he won’t do any work.  He doesn’t participate in class.  He doesn’t pay attention.  And I have talked with him about how that will impact his grades throughout the year and how he can improve that, but it doesn’t seem to help.  Finally, I had to call his parents last week and I spoke with his dad about his performance in class.  I wanted him to know there was a problem.

Tonight, that student and his father came to the open house.  After the open house ended, the father and his son showed back up in my classroom.  His dad asked the student to wait out in the hall and then he turned to me.  He said that he wanted to explain about something that’s going on at home that is impacting his son’s performance in school.  He said it wasn’t an excuse.  It was just context.

Three months ago, the student’s mother died.  She had been sick for many years and her death had been hard for the student and for their whole family.  What touched me the most was this father.  He was a mechanic and was wearing his uniform, clearly indicating that he had come straight from work.

“The hardest part for me,” he explained with tears in his eyes, “is that I only get to spend about two hours a day with my kids when I get home from work.”

His wife had been a stay at home mom for his son’s whole life.  She had helped with the homework.  She had made the dinners.  She had encouraged and supported her children academically.  He told me that he had always been involved in the sports and extra curricular activities, but he worked full time to provide for them and that didn’t leave a lot of evenings to sit down and help with the homework.

“Actually, this is my first open house,” he laughingly told me while brushing tears quickly away.  “And I’m not saying that any of this excuses my son’s performance in class, but I wanted you to know what was going on so that you had some context for what’s happening.”

By the time our conversation ended, he and I had come up with a plan of action for his son.

But when I left school tonight, it wasn’t academics that I was thinking about.  It wasn’t even students.  Or their parents.  It was about people.  And context.

As a teacher, I have no idea where a student has been when they walk into my classroom and I have no idea where they go when they leave my classroom.  And, really, as a person it’s no different.  I encounter people every day – clerks in stores, waiters in restaurants, pediatricians, Bean’s daycare workers, bank clerks, the guy behind the counter at the deli, my parents, my friends, my husband.  I encounter all kinds of people every day and most of the time, I don’t know where they were before they interacted with me or where they go afterward.  And tonight I learned that sometimes when that context is missing, we misunderstand people.

What I saw as a disciplinary problem was a grieving student.

And it makes me wonder how many times during the course of a regular day I encounter people who have context of their own.  How many times do I assume or judge or jump to conclusions without the context?  And it’s not that we can always know the context or that we even have a right to know someone’s context, but I think what’s more important is that we recognize there is context.

That’s what compassion is to me.  It isn’t really an action so much as it is a recognition of the context that people have in their lives.

And that’s something that I learned that from one of my students today.

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84 thoughts on “Context

  1. Beth

    While heartbreaking, those Aha moments are wonderful in what they provide for you. I have a feeling that this student will now grow quickly and improve rapidly.

    Have you tried crystallized ginger?

  2. Oh, now I’m crying. I’m a teacher, too, but college – so my students have to volunteer any information (parents are not involved, of course) and I have heard many heartbreaking stories. I always, always try to be patient and try not to jump to conclusions. You just never know what’s going on with someone, either in their head or in their life.

    My heart really goes out to your student and his dad.

  3. Jen C

    great post katie! your kids are lucky to have you! this is something everyone needs to do. or we should all just wear signs to explain ourselves, i’m not sure yet. still working on that.

    ps there’s no shame in taking zofran in order to function on a daily basis. hope you feel better soon!

    1. Katie

      I’ve got a call in to my doctor right now about the zofran… Hoping that helps!

      1. Shelley

        RE the Zofran: Make sure to request the ODT – Oral Disolving Tablets!!!

        They’re available in generic now and work MUCH better and quicker than the regular tablet.

  4. Dawn

    WOW. Thank you for that. That hit home for me, and is something I really need to keep in mind at my job, and in my day-to-day. I think that it has kinda been there, especially since becoming a mom, and how that has made my life seem so much shorter and… mortal.
    Thank you for bringing to the forefront of my mind.

    And a plug for the crystallized ginger, which makes me nauseous thinking about it NOW, while preggo it DID help calm my stomach.

  5. Nikki

    I cried again. But thank you so much for sharing. I had a problem with a student in my class who would never stay awake! Turns out his Mom would take him to Mexico all the time to see his Dad (who couldn’t enter the country, and make round trips during the week! All I had to do was ask…I will definitely take what you have said into consideration when I talk to people throughout the day!

  6. Wow – what a story. And so true, we have no idea what is going on in people’s lives that make them react like they do. Thank you for sharing and helping us to think about that so that perhaps we’ll have a bit more perspective with those we meet in our own lives.

  7. Erin R.

    Great post! Brought tears to my eyes. You really never can tell what’s going on with people.

  8. Sarah H.

    Great post Katie! Very insightful, and something I trrrrrry and remember with my daily interactions with my patients…especially when I’m frusterated about their lack of English.

    I think it’s very helpful to learn about people and their context and makes us all a little more human.

  9. I’m observing at a preschool right now (I’ll get my credential next year) and your post really hit home, often times when I ask a teacher about a child who is being difficult or even not talking I find out a whole story which often explains the behavior at hand. It is so great that you were able to come up with an action plan with the father and find a way to help this family heal through teamwork. You’re awesome!

  10. Thank you! I really needed this today. Been having a bit of a self-absorbed pity party lately and I need to get over it and be grateful. You truly never know what other folks are going through, what kind of issues they have or even what kind of day they’ve had. It never pays to judge.

    And congrats on the new career! Seems like you are adapting pretty well.

  11. Lisa

    Such a touching post and so sad for the father. It does remind you to consider all possibilities with people you come into contact with as we have no idea what they’re going through or what they’ve overcome.

  12. This is a beautiful post. I have nothing to add, but I think it’s wonderful that you are trying to think about these things, and I am going to try to be more mindful of context in my everyday interactions.

  13. I tend to be an over-empathetic person anyway, but even I have my judge-y days and this is a great reminder of why we should try to give our fellow humans benefit of the doubt. Very touching, indeed. One thing that child does have is a caring father (or so it sounds). If only all children had parents that cared that deeply!

  14. I work in an elementary school, and there are so many heartbreaking stories. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine how I can help but it’s individual stories like this, and thoughtful actions to find solutions, that are the best success stories. It may sound cliched, but you really are touching lives as a teacher. You never know how your words or actions or intentions will affect a child’s future. It is definitely something to keep in mind throughout the day. Thank you for this post!

  15. Thank you so, so much for this post. I too am a new teacher, and I too have students who simply don’t turn in work. Thank you for reminding me to stop and remember the context.

  16. Courtney

    As a teacher I’ve been there. Teaching is so much more than academics. It’s about looking at these kids not just as students but as people with feelings and problems and a need for love. This is my 8th year teaching, and I’ve heard my heartbreaking stories in the past 7 years than I ever dreamed I would .

  17. Jennifer

    Oh Katie…what a great post and exactly what I needed to hear tonight! Thank you for always giving me a good reason to come back to your blog. It just feels like home!!

  18. Laura

    Wow, that’s such a grounding story. In my job I also come across people going through hard times (medical issues) and you always have to remember to think of the bigger picture about things. I think that teachers are awesome, and as Courtney said, it’s SO much more than academics! I have the greatest respect for teachers!

    I hope you can be a positive force in this child’s life (in addition to his dad, who obviously loves him). Good luck!

  19. What a sad but inspiring story. Thanks for sharing.

  20. Such a great post. and so true. It’s something I forget about a lot. I am an impatient person and I am constantly forgetting that everyone I meet is fighting their own battle. Thanks for the reminder.

  21. Yeah – this is a lesson I’ve also had to learn… let’s be honest, I have to keep relearning it a lot! Reminders of this are always good though. And I hope you start feeling better soon!

  22. Thanks for making me BAWL MY EVER LOVIN’ EYES OUT!

    And yes, we all need to be reminded of that periodically. So, so. very. true.

  23. Marina

    Great post, Katie! It’s something we all need to remember in our lives. You’re doing great work as a teacher!

  24. “Three months ago, the student’s mother died.” As soon as I read that I began to cry. It took me a minute to continue reading and I did so with tears in my eyes. Such a touching story and a reminder to all of us. Thank you for sharing it.

  25. Amy

    Amen. Amen. Amen.

    I know I’m guilty of judging and assumption every day. Thank you for reminding me that there’s much more to people and life experience other than the surface. The context really IS important– which is something I should remember more often as an English major.

  26. Susan Samson

    When my father passed away in 2004, I became very aware that people didn’t know why I would break down. We, my mother, sister & I went shopping for dresses for Dad’s funeral. I remember because the three of us had such fun chatting it up and dancing because we were in distress. The lady working at the store gave us such a look that I will never forget. I snapped at her that she has no idea what I had been through so she shouldn’t judge me. My father’s passing made me more aware that I don’t know what’s going on everywhere and has taught me to brush off negative attidues that I see or get for no reason because I don’t know the reason behind it. A great lesson to learn.

  27. Debbie

    I am just glad that the student’s father came forward and advocated for him. Sharing information appropriately helps kids (and adults) successfully weather difficult times. At this moment we are going through a similarly difficult time with my stepdaughters – they were removed from their mother’s home by court order due to dangerous conditions. The switch to our home though the right thing to do has been a shock for them. My husband and I are continuously debating how much to share with teachers. Please remember to share at least some information when it is your kids who are struggling.

  28. Megan

    Thanks for sharing this, Katie.

  29. As a teacher, I have to say that I learn something new from my students everyday. Teaching is an eye-opening, sometimes heartbreaking, but always wonderful career. You are making a difference in this child’s life just by caring enough to call his dad. You’re building a relationship with that child, which will mean more in the grand scheme of things than any homework assignment.

  30. oh wow, my heart really goes out to that child and his family. That must have taken a lot of courage for the father to open up to you like that, and you’re so right….there’s often always a context behind why people behave the way they are at any given time. I think it’s so great that that child has a teacher, though, who cares and is working to help him.

  31. Wonderful post. I heard a sermon on this same subject recently… it is so important to remember!

  32. That brought tears to my eyes – that poor dad and his children!

  33. I’ve heard stories like these before and they make me try to think twice before judging someone else. It’s so hard to do, but everyone does have context and you just never know. Thank you for sharing this story! It reminds me once again that I need to allow others a little more slack because I never know what’s going on in their lives outside of our encounters.

  34. Jess

    I love this post. That’s all.

  35. Wow, it really makes you stop and think. You never know what someone may be going through. I’m so glad the father explained everything and yall came up with a plan. If only there were more teachers like you and parnets like him in the world. You make a wonderful teacher and I hope one day my son has a teacher as caring as you are about your students.

  36. Love this post! I’m K teacher and the thing I struggle with the most is judging the PARENTS of my students. “Oh, he hasn’t turned in his homework 2 weeks in a row — They must not care.” “Man, they couldn’t even make it out to Meet the Teacher night??” etc etc. I have to constantly remind myself that I teach in a school with a population that is very different from what I’m used to. Many parents are single parents, working and/or in school and raising one or several kids. Some of my students live with their parents AND their grandparents all in one house. It’s so easy to forget the context, so thank you for reminding me!

  37. Introvertster

    Makes me think of one of my favorite quotes, “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”

  38. Such a honest and true post. I have tears in my eyes. Thanks for sharing.

  39. Learninglessons

    Katie, wonderful lesson, and thank you for “breaking the silence” to share it with us. One of the hardest, but best, lessons I’m learning from Al-Anon is that I can never know what’s going on in someone else’s head and heart and life. So I should never judge. Just as I hope no one is judging me by what they may see on the outside.

  40. It’s so important for the student to have someone realize what’s going on! And can be such a relief! I know that during a VERY rough portion in HS, I was touched by a few people that will forever be credited with changing my life. I’m glad the student has you as a teacher.

  41. Sue V.

    Beautiful post. Thank you for sharing, but more importantly, thank you for being there for that family.

  42. Sonya

    Beautiful post! I teach and I have learned that context is a big thing! Especially for younger kids. You don’t want to butt in to people’s lives, but if they share those things with us then we can treat the situation with the care it needs. It can’t completely change our expectations, but I think we come up with creative solutions to meet those expectations. I have certainly had those situations where I wish I had reacted differently, but I just didn’t know that there were other circumstances involved. It’s one of those things that I always have to keep in mind.

  43. Thank you for sharing this story. If more people stopped a moment to think about the context in which others’ actions take place, I agree there would be a lot more compassion in the world.

  44. Under my signature on my e-mail is the following quote:

    Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

    So true, so true.

  45. You are such a wonderful writer!

  46. This is so well put, and such a valuable reminder to treat everyone, always with kindness and respect. You just never know what’s going on behind the scenes.

  47. Katie- Fabulous Friday reminder about being kind to people you encounter… as you never know what they may be going through.

    Cheers!

  48. Yes. The things some kiddos go through would make your hair curl. Context is key!

  49. LOVE LOVE LOVE The dad. I love the Dad because I’ve been where that little boy is, except it was a sibling, Love the Dad because it takes a strong man to share a very tough story like that, and Love the Dad because he could be just a father. That night he was a Daddy. And shoot here come the tears. Just Love.

  50. Jessica S.

    Very Very True.

  51. jamie

    oh my goodness. crying. in addition to that, i always think {these are just people trying to live their lives, just like me}. such a good post. thanks gorgeous barfing wonderful katie! i love your blog SO VERY MUCH.

  52. Maren

    Poor baby! I can’t even imagine what kind of heartbreak that child is going through right now!
    A pat on your back for talking to the parent! As a parent, I try to keep my son’s teachers up-to-date on any major changes in my son’s life…like his father going to prison last Spring. But, I think, many parents don’t know they can talk to teachers…that they’re people too.
    And, yes, I’ve got tears in my eyes too!

  53. Katie, What a wonderful lesson and reminder to us all that everyone is dealing with thier own inner battle. Keep up the great work!

  54. Rachel

    I have had a discussion about this topic with my 13 year old daughter… only from the other side, you never know what your teacher has going on at home. An occaisional bad day is ok, but stand up for yourself if it’s a recurring theme. Same for grocery clerk, another kid at school, someone driving down the street, you just never know what the other person is dealing with. I’m trying to teach her compassion, hopefully it’s sinking in. = )

  55. Katie, this post is beautiful. It made me cry. I know it’s just simple and straightforward, but your insight is so touching. How true this is. How many people are hurting or happy or confused or lost or inexperienced or excited and we need to take into account their humanity, their emotions when we interact with them. NO ONE is just a job or a tool or a number in a grade book. Your teaching will be so enriched by these thoughts!!!!!!!!!

  56. Tressa

    Your students are so blessed to have you as their teacher!
    This is an awesome post, Katie. Thanks for sharing. It opened my eyes to a whole new world. I needed that.

  57. Not very often do I stop and think, “why was that clerk so rude to me, I was nice to them?” This is a great post Katie!

  58. Great post! I took a class that discussed this topic about a year ago. Ever since then, whenever I have a bad encounter with someone it makes me stop and wonder what is going on in their live.

  59. Jen

    I’ve just recently started following your blog after I saw a comment you left on one of my friends’ blog, and I was intrigued by the title of your blog. I’m still catching up, but enjoying your blog so far.

    I don’t know what grade you teach, but I’m a middle school teacher myself, and have been for 10 years now. When reading this post, I have to confess that while I thought it was a heartbreaking story about your student, what was really running through my mind was that I couldn’t believe that this was not information you were given previously from the administration, or guidance department at your school!! SHOCKED! That is certainly information that you should have had, and you should not have been hearing about it for the first time from this boy’s father after at least 3 weeks of school! Shame on your school for not recognizing the horrible situation your student must have been in and for not doing anything to make his life more bearable while he’s at school ALL day! Just thinking that the poor boy has been sitting in school for 6 hours a day, and no one has addressed this heartbreaking saddness and loss he’s experiencing. That’s so sad to me.

    I know you’re going to make a difference in this boy’s life, and hopefully he’ll start on his path to being the boy he once was before. Much luck to you!

  60. Linda

    AWESOME! Thank you so much for writing this! The world would be a much better place if everyone just realized this!!

  61. Jenna

    Thank you, Katie.

  62. Kristin Bateman

    Katie, today you have become a TRUE teacher.

    Sending you a virtual hug of congrats and fellow compassion.

    People can walk into the classroom thinking “hey anyone can teach.” And then there are those who take that extra step.

    Today, you took that extra step.

    It’s an exhausting, frustrating and demanding career, but it’s one I wouldn’t give up for ANYTHING. Welcome to the club!

  63. I’m really glad you talked about context.. it’s something that is very easy for me, and probably everyone, to forget when dealing with people. As a nurse, I always try to think about what a person might be going though when they are rude, impatient, etc and seem to be taking it out on me. It really helps you to gain patience and compassion with others.

  64. Heidi

    Wow. Just wow.

  65. Chan

    Oh thank you for this post!!!

    I’m a student teacher (getting my degree in Canada at University of British Columbia) and I also do a lot of work with grieving kids. I volunteer for a children’s grief and bereavement camp every year. Often, my campers come in with school files that cite disciplinary problems or academic problems, so often the grief and loss in the child is overlooked. It’s not an excuse but let’s face it: as adults we are not our best after losing a loved one for quite some time. It is no different for children.

    Look up Camp Erin. It’s a camp in the US for grieving children. I know the one I work with is free for campers, perhaps there is one in your area. Check with your local hospice 🙂

    Good luck with teaching. So excited to hear about your adventure!

  66. Lindsey

    My mom always told me when I was little – be nice to everyone, even if they arent nice to you – you dont know if they had breakfast that morning.
    I realized when I was older how true that really was. Especially in todays economy. We dont know what happens before you see them.

  67. Shelley

    Great post. It’s wonderful that you had this lesson so early in your teaching career.

  68. Ashley

    Thank you very much for this. It’s absolutely true. We never know what another person is going through until someone shares that with us. We just have to care enough to ask and listen.

  69. Julie

    Katie,

    As an former Assistant Principal that is on medical leave for her pregnancy, I cannot tell you how amazing this post was. The school I work at is full of loving, hard working teachers that would give anything for their students to be great students. The hardest thing for them to remember is that life is different before school and after school, and you never know what might be happening at home. Thank you dear Katie for spending time with this father and coming up with a plan. My favorite thing to say to teachers is, I am not that parent. I do not know what it is like to have (a child with autism, living with my grandparents, a dying parent, etc.) but school is a safe place from 8-4 and this child needs a little TLC. Knowing and walking in this student’s shoes for even a minute a day will make you an amazing teacher not only for him, but for all the kids in your class, and for future years to come. Bless you Katie. Bean and “The New Guy” have a wonderful mom and I wish I could hire you as a teacher in my school.

  70. allison

    Hi Katie,
    This was a great post and I hope you get to read all of these great comments! I’m in my 3rd and final (yippeee) year of a teaching program and I had a similar situation during student teaching. I had a student whose mother died tragically and she was there to witness what had happened. My advice to you is to give your students a survey about their interests, strengths, weaknesses, and then have a section for them to share anything they want to tell you. This will help you get to know your students better and will also allow you to differentiate your lesson plans. I’m not sure exactly what subject you’re teaching, but if you are teaching English, just be careful about books where the mother figure dies. I know not everyone would give you the same advice, but my student could not handle reading a book where this happened and she was a year into her grieving process. Instead, I had her pick her own book to read and she looked up at me with her big blue eyes and just said, “Thank you” as one tear fell down her face. It was definitely an eye opening experience for me. Thanks for sharing your experience! I could really relate to it.

  71. SO touching and thought provoking… thank you for sharing this. 🙂

  72. Alyssa

    Wonderful post Katie. I’m crying too. There is a teen show on MTV called ‘If you really knew me’. It is a great show about learning what others are going through before you judge. While I’m 30yo, the show is very touching. This post reminded me of the show.

  73. Katie, wow that is an amazing story. I am teary eyed as well. There is a quote somewhere about not judging someone because everyone is going through something. Thank you for the reminder.

  74. Karen

    Wonderful post! It sounds as though you are really meant to be a teacher! Plato certainly knew what he was talking about: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” Easy to forget sometimes, though.

  75. So true. Thanks for sharing.

  76. Hilary

    Okay, this may come across as cold, but as a middle school teacher working in a district that has a widely diverse population, I get upset when things like this happen. There is a real lack of communication sometimes between the administration, guidance department and faculty. These are the things we as teachers NEED to know about in order to educate our kids in a supportive environment. In one of the books I teach, the main character is almost sexually assaulted. I need to know ahead of time if I have any students who have dealt with sexual abuse otherwise I can’t imagine how hard it might be to read that story. I have complained numerous times about the lack of information we get. I would be shocked if someone in the guidance department at your school was not aware of this boy’s home life and could have shared that information with you. We meet with our guidance department, special education staff and the school nurse during the first two weeks of school to find out what’s going on with our kids. Good for you for coming up with a plan to help this student but at the same time, it breaks my heart to think of this poor kid carrying around this intense pain without anyone to show him any sympathy. Someone should have told you about this.

  77. anon

    I think this is my favorite and the best post so far.

  78. What a wonderful thing to share…I’m so glad you did. When I encounter an unhappy person in day to day life I try so hard to keep this in mind. Sometimes it’s difficult but you are so right…I need to try an remember what might be going on in their life.

    My heart breaks for that family…I hope they find peace in their grief. I will say a prayer for them!

    🙂

    Megan

  79. […] going to conclude before I get all rambly like, with a thought, a favorite blogger of mine recently wrote about – context. We all have it. Not every aspect of our lives goes up into the blogosphere. There’s a level […]

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