|Student and "buddy" at the extended care home on Friday|
I get a variety of responses when people learn that I work with teenagers. Unfortunately reactions lean towards the negative side and usually range somewhere between surprise and pity. Comments such as: "You're a sucker for punishment", "I just couldn't do it", and "Kids these days don't have any respect, work ethic, (insert-positive-trait-here)" are common. Fortunately there is a class activity that consistently reminds me that the kids are just fine.
Every semester I take my classes to a nearby extended care home where my students are partnered up with a resident. The initial atmosphere is intimidating for most of the students. Extended care homes are filled with many people who are struggling with severe mental and physical disabilities and many of my students have never been in that environment. Having a conversation with an individual with dementia or palsy pushes most people beyond their comfort zone. The interesting thing is that I have taken numerous trips to care homes over the years, yet I have never seen a student show anything but patience, compassion, and respect towards the residents that they meet. I have watched students with "attention issues" listen patiently and respectfully (for close to an hour) to someone who can barely speak above a whisper. Students with "behavioural difficulties" have personally volunteered to visit with a resident who is profoundly impaired. For whatever reason, the experience always brings out the best in these kids.
Here's an example: during my last visit I walked by one of my students who was listening intently and smiling at the gentleman he was sitting with. As I quietly passed them I felt relieved that this particular student had been partnered with a capable storyteller. This was a student who often seemed angry and unhappy and I had hoped he would have a good experience during our visit. After we were back at school, I commented to him that the gentleman must have been very engaging to create such response. The student caught me off guard when he said "No, actually Harold really had trouble speaking; he hardly said a word the entire time". I was struck by how attentive and patient my student had been despite the fact that his partner was limited in his communication. If at any time in the future I get frustrated with this particular student, I'm going to remind myself of the obvious humility and character he displayed in that situation.
As a teacher these trips to the extended care home remind me of three things. The first, is that when students are put in situations that demand their best behaviour and attitude, they will ultimately rise to the occasion. I like to believe that their true personalities are revealed, and the admirable characteristics they display at these times represent who they really are.
The second is that I really need to work harder to provide more of these situations in my teaching. I have a pretty strong hunch that a key reason the students respond so positively is because of the authentic learning environment where they are outside of the classroom and making a difference in the lives of other human beings. The students demonstrate their true character because the experience is real. I need to provide more of these opportunities in my classes.
Finally, (and most importantly), these trips remind me that our youth are a testament to the optimism we should hold for the future. At the core, our students are kind and caring and empathetic, and when the time comes for them to step up and take their place in the world, we'll all be alright.