Saturday, April 12, 2014

Ask Questions First

Post by Jenny McDaniel: Jenny is in her 21st year of teaching English, all at Bettendorf High School.

As a high school English teacher, I work with roughly four hundred students a year; multiply that over the twenty-one years that I have taught, and you can see that I have had the great fortune to meet and know many teenagers. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I have learned from my students is to ask questions first.  It is always easier to judge people than it is to understand them.  Judging someone takes a split second, but understanding takes time, effort, and sometimes it requires us to push aside our preconceived notions and listen with a pure intent to truly understand.

I particularly remember learning this lesson when there was a girl who came to my senior Interpersonal Communications class every day and put her head down on the desk. I could feel my irritation growing as the days progressed, until I recognized that I had formed a full judgment of her.  She was, according to me, lazy, disrespectful, apathetic, and destined to fail my class.  Notice that in forming my judgment, it was all about me.  At this point, I did not bother to ask her “Hey, what’s going on?  Is there something that is preventing you from paying attention?”  To my chagrin, she stayed after class one day because she needed her make-up work.  We started to talk, and I softened enough to ask the questions I should have asked in the first place.  As it turns out, her apparent apathy had nothing to do with me--- shocking.  She was being abused by her father.  Every afternoon when she left school she lived in fear, so school was her solace, a place she could sleep, let her guard down, and feel safe. I fulfilled my obligations as a mandatory reporter, and from that day forward when she slept in my class, I simply patted her on the back and let her know I was available if she needed me. Because I asked the questions, I understood her, and when I understood her, I could treat her with kindness and empathy.

Similarly, I remember the day I went for my son’s fourth grade conferences.  The teacher, a thirty year veteran, seemed to suggest that she believed he was “slow.”  She said, “I was shocked by your son’s high test scores.  Whenever we address him in reading group, he does not make eye-contact.  I had to check the high scores twice to make sure they were his.”  After I pushed my jaw up and bit my tongue, it occurred to me that had she just talked to my son or asked him questions, she might have realized he is shy, and shy people don’t especially feel comfortable with eye-contact.  She might have also learned that he was a boy scout with numerous merit badges, that he was interested in history, that he read more than three books a week, that he loved to garden and care for animals, and that avoiding eye-contact does not make a child “slow,” nor is it valid to make complex judgments of a person based on one behavior without seeking more information.

These and many more moments like them sit in my heart and remind me to ask before I condemn the student who forgets his homework, does not come to class, or puts his head on the desk.  Some people will not answer personal questions, but what I have discovered over the years is that most people simply want to be understood and accepted.  When that happens, they are more open to suggestion, support, and growth. Besides, we all have times when we wish someone had just asked first.

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