Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Fighting for Ethos: Never Cry Wolf #SOL17

Each Tuesday the team at Two Writing Teachers sponsors the Slice of Life Story Challenge. 
My Grandma Young kept a shelf of Little Golden books for the grandkids to read when we visited. I spent lots of time rereading my favorites, including The Boy Who Cried Wolf. In this classic children's story, a shepherd boy tires of tending the sheep night after night and cries, "wolf," prompting the villagers to come to his rescue. He does this repeatedly until one night the villagers tire of the boy's calls and refuse to come. That's the night the wolf attacks the flock. But the boy had lost all credibility, and the villagers did not believe him.  

I internalized the lesson of The Boy Who Cried Wolf long before I learned the word credibility, long before I realized the boy had no ethos with the villagers. His abuse of his position cost the little boy his standing, his credibility. 

Since writing about my troubles at work last week, I've given a lot of thought to ethos, specifically how teachers earn ethos. More specifically, I've pondered how a student and that student's parents can be magically granted ethos without any claim to it. Have they cried wolf in the past? 

I've taught long enough to learn that one student who does not have regular attendance, who does not complete assignments, who has not earned what rhetoricians call derived ethos can undermine a teacher. I've experienced it and seen it happen to other teachers. 

I've taught long enough to learn that my credibility can go a long way in creating a trusting classroom community and that it's imperative that my terminal ethos at the end of a trimester be such that I can sustain and grow enrollment in the advanced courses I teach. I care about ethos in my profession and in my own classroom, both my own and that of students. It's a frequent topic of discussion. 

I've taught long enough that I've seen many teachers leave the classroom and seek more meaningful employment in other professions because they have had to deal with unpleasant situations in which a student is assumed to have more ethos than the professional with a college degree--and perhaps an advanced degree--with years, perhaps decades, of experience, and with a lengthy list of accomplishments. 

Early in my career (my first year) a superb teacher in Arizona quit after three years in the classroom because she did not receive administrative support. In my long career, I've had various degrees of support, and until last week felt very supported by my administration, and even though I'm upset about recent events, I trust my administration and feel supported by them, even the administrator whose good intentions have caused me much pain.

Our district has adopted Restorative Justice Practices, and claims that this model will guide our relationships with one another. Yet relationships cannot be restored, cannot be made right, when a teacher is denied the opportunity to work through a problem with a student. This matters to me. 

The events of last week have damaged my relationship with my general speech classes, harming the trust I have in them and creating a tense classroom environment. I'm working on that. I'm trying to rise to my better nature rather than act on my emotional wounds. The students help, and Monday a student from first period came to my fifth period and asked for a pass out of his fifth period class so he could hang out in speech again. 

On Thursday of last week, a student in my first period speech class remained after class to talk about how upset I'd been all week and to ask if he was the reason I was upset. He told me the class is concerned for me and feels upset that I've been upset. 

As I thought about this post Monday afternoon, John Proctor and Abigail Williams from Arthur Miller's The Crucible came into my mind. I've long admired John's final act of courage in refusing to nail a confession of witchcraft to the church wall. In a final act of courage, Proctor shouts his reason for not signing the confession: 

Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!...How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

The discredited Abigail, having already damaged Elizabeth, Giles, John, and many others, having stolen the reputations, the names, of many, lives on. 

And that's my concern for my profession. We cannot continue insisting that teachers nail false confessions to the door. We cannot continue denying their ethos and giving those who have not earned credibility power. This does not mean we discount the concerns of students and parents; it means that ethos matters, and it's imperative that we treat it as though it does. 

John Proctor lived an imperfect life, yet we recognize him as a tragic hero in The Crucible. We teachers also live imperfect lives, but we rarely view ourselves as heroes, even when all we have is our name.