This post was contributed by Buck Cooper.
I can tell you the day that I made peace with children falling asleep in my class. I was in the second semester of my first year teaching at (then) T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. Another teacher friend who taught at a high school in North Carolina had recently tweeted something to the effect that she had no problem letting a child sleep in her class if that was what they needed at that point in the day or in their life. When I first read this tweet, my righteously indignant, “the children must learn at all costs and there shall be no excuses” (my–not everyone’s, but my particular flavor of (a) Teach For America self) was up in arms. The children? Allowed to sleep? Surely your lessons are hideously unengaging? Perhaps you’re incoherent and they can’t follow what you’re doing? Maybe they’re up all night playing video games at home? Whatever the reason, this. cannot. happen.
And then I taught in the International Academy (The IA) at T.C. I had students as old as 23, and as young as 15. I was teaching Geometry and Physics to students who had all recently come to the United States–mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, but also from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Moldova and a number of other countries. Their English levels ranged from fairly solid spoken, but rough around the edges written to “I should probably smile when you say what is your name because I have no idea what you are saying unless my friend who is also from my country translates.” It was a lot. My biggest rookie IA mistake was asking a room full of English language learners to trace something assuming they all knew what trace meant. And then I had to try to explain tracing as simply as possible, but with props.
But back to the sleeping. For much of my first year, when a student fell asleep in my class, I was irritated. I was out there busting my tail to make these lessons engaging, with low linguistic floors for entry and high ceilings for the thinking required to do them. And these students had the audacity to fall asleep in my classes. I began to ask around–among colleagues, the social worker (a really great man named David Wynn, who is 100% one of the greatest and most thoughtful and hilarious humans I’ve ever met and had the privilege to work with), and among my students themselves. What slowly became clear to me was that easily half of my classes were students who left school and went straight to a job, many at restaurants, some in other businesses, where they worked essentially full time jobs. Some worked demolition or construction after school and then worked even more on the weekends. We didn’t have a ton of disposable income while we lived in Alexandria, but when we went out to restaurants, I began to recognize my students as bar backs, busboys, cooks and food servers. And when I asked the ones I knew back at school how much they worked or what they had done over the weekend. And almost to a person, they said that they’d worked basically the entire weekend and that they worked a lot of nights during the week.
Some of these students were working for walking around money, but a lot of them were working because their family or the people with whom they lived needed their income in order to make the ends meet. A couple, for several different reasons including age, lived on their own. While in high school. In a foreign country they’d lived in for less than 3 years. It was mind boggling. Of course many of them were exhausted on Mondays or by Thursday night or didn’t show up on Friday morning. They were doing the equivalent of two jobs between work and school and the job that didn’t have as much to do with their survival was the one where they felt enough space to relax. My position in sleeping moderated. I moved from just being irritated by it to asking a couple of questions and doing my homework about who was working where and how much and what the situation was.
My point here isn’t to romanticize the life of teaching immigrants or to say that I got this right. It’s just to point out that there’s an internal logic to what our students do, even when they’re wrong for it in our eyes. What makes sense to people is what they do. And I think a big part of meeting our students where they are is trying to parse out this internal logic and if not to take it into account when we make decisions about children, at least to see that it’s something worth paying attention to. Sometimes it’s something worth respecting. We can go a long way towards meeting our students where they are if we respond to something that they do that’s upsetting appropriately, but thoughtfully, with the understanding that whatever they’re doing makes sense to them, and that that sense is worth getting our heads around.