When I was in 10th grade, I had a chemistry teacher whom I’ll call Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith was a male chauvinist who believed, and often said out loud, that girls were not equipped to learn chemical equations and properties. I struggled in that class not only with the subject matter but also under the weight of a teacher who believed I didn’t measure up. He mocked me when I asked questions, graded me harshly, and openly told the girls that we were wasting our time. I got a B-minus in that class by the skin of my teeth, and to this day, the Periodic Table makes me shudder.
Flash-forward 30 years and I am now a mother of two pretty smart, well-rounded children. Our school district is notorious for their caring teachers and strong administrative staff, and people move to our town when time nears for kindergarten. My children have received a top-notch education thus far, and we have been blessed with amazing teachers along the way. So much so, that many have become family friends, and we have been lucky to have our children so well-received.
Well, except for that one year, the year a teacher blatantly disliked my son.
Our son is an intelligent, inquisitive boy, and as such, he’s been fortunate that he’s struggled very little in his classes. Math comes naturally to him, and he’s always read above grade level. He’s a conscientious student by most accounts, and while his grades don’t always reflect his intellect, overall, he’s a model student.
That all came to a grinding halt a few years ago. Whether it was hormones, tougher material, or a combination of both, he struggled to find his footing in those first few weeks. Forgotten homework, lower test scores, and poor study habits became his norm. We had countless discussions with him about applying himself. We argued over his grades, and finally, a few months into that school year, he tearfully admitted that he genuinely didn’t understand the material in one of his classes.
Though I don’t believe in fighting my children’s battles, I do believe in acting as their advocate when the are struggling academically, so I set a meeting with the teacher. When we met, I was stunned to hear what she had to tell me. She told me that she didn’t think my son was as smart as he thought he was, that she expected better grades from him based on his IQ, and that, overall, she didn’t like him very much. She actually looked me in the eye and said she didn’t like my kid one bit.
Now, most would expect me to say that I fought back and defended him. My instinct was to tell her all the reasons she was wrong about him, but I chose to stay silent. That’s not to say that my eyes didn’t fill with angry tears, and it took all I had not to reach across the table and backhand her. I didn’t, of course. I just accepted her egregious comments and left the meeting with as much dignity as I could. My son had clearly found his Mr. Smith. His teacher had developed her attitude after too many years of teaching, and she’d never change. It was up to me to equip my son with the tools to cope with a teacher who didn’t like him.
I went home and had a frank conversation with my son. I gently explained what she had said, how she felt about him. In our discussions, he told me he could tell he wasn’t the teacher’s pet but that it was OK with him. He told me that he had decided to work his tail off, not to prove her wrong, but to prove to himself that he could master the material. When, at the end of the conversation, he grinned at me and said, “Man, it’ll eat her alive if I get an A,” I knew he’d be OK.
For the rest of the year, he applied himself, sought our help with tricky concepts, and repetitiously worked on the subject matter as hard as he could. I cried tears of joy for him when he came home with an A on his final report card. I asked him if the teacher had commented, and he told me she’d made a cruel remark about him never being advanced in the subject, no matter how hard he tried. He apparently looked at her and said, “Maybe not advanced but definitely improved. Improvement is just as important.” He awed me that day.
Teachers are human, I get it. It’s impossible to expect that teachers will love every child who graces their classroom, and it’s been my experience that most teachers are the utmost professionals when it comes to keeping their personal feelings in check. While it was hard for me to stand back and let my child feel unliked and undervalued by a teacher, I am grateful that I trusted that my kid would rise to the challenge. He still talks about how empowered that year made him feel. He says he found out what he could do when he really set his mind to a task. Kids will always surprise us if we let them.
As for me, I still can’t do a chemistry experiment, and I only know the chemical symbol for gold but that’s OK. And, Mr. Smith? I got an A in college chemistry, and it felt good.