Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Affliction Which Shall Not Be Named

Graduation was last night.  I was honored to sit on the field as a member of the Teachers Honor Court. My heart felt young seeing the relieved, celebratory smiles of all our new alums up close.  As I hugged and photographed and applauded, what I must have said a hundred times was "Enjoy the moment!" I wanted them to breathe graduation, to fill their lungs with the sweetness and poignancy of the hour.  Sometimes, I wish I would live the words I speak.  Even though the ink on the diplomas isn't even dry, I am already beginning to plan for next year.  To tell the truth, once fourth quarter makes her debut, my mind begins to imagine the coming school year.  I suppose it is part of being a reflective person , teaching a reflective discipline, in a career which encourages continuous reflection  -- I am never content to let one school year close before I begin thinking about what I could have done better, what could be the difference between good and amazing.

The first thing I am doing differently next year is banning a particular word from being said in my presence.  Now, I know that I am constantly lauding the power of language and encouraging students to develop their own voices and barring students from a particular word might be in opposition to my objectives, but in this case, it must be done. Actually, I hope to be more effective in achieving my objectives through the complete erasure of this word from my students' vocabularies.

The word? Senioritis.  Even typing it out makes me cringe.

I heard this word so many times this year that as May approached, each time someone uttered it, the irritation was like tiny prickly bugs crawling beneath my skin.  "I'm behind in my work -- you know, senioritis."  "I can't seem to focus -- it is a bad case of senioritis!"  "Don't teachers realize that we have senioritis and that makes studying nearly impossible?"  "I have had senioritis all year and that's why my grades are so bad."  It was epidemic -- spreading like hot gossip and attacking the innocent, leaving students helpless and unable to defend themselves.  Once senioritis struck, any deficiency was now a symptom of the disease -- from bad attitudes and uncontrollable drowsiness, to unfollowed directions and subpar assignments -- and any student infected was relinquished -- in his own mind, at least -- of any responsibility for his performance.  Blame it on the senioritis.

The problem is this is like blaming a forest fire on Bigfoot -- you cannot blame what doesn't actually exist.

Senioritis is a myth. Granted, it is one of grand proportions in high schools today, but nonetheless, it is a myth.  I, for one (and I am sure I'll get an Amen! from some other senior teachers out there) am completely finished with it.  When a student blames his irresponsible actions or lackluster abilities on senioritis, he appears to be taking responsibility, but in fact is abdicating blame to this relentless mythical syndrome.  And by doing so, he perpetuates the myth, thus, allowing other students to adopt the same stance -- We can't!  We have senioritis!

Now, if this were some silly, inconsequential, rite of passage sort of situation, I would not have decided to ban the word from my classroom next year.  But honestly, I think this situation is hurting our students and allowing that to happen in my own classroom is something I simply will not tolerate anymore. Though I did not lower my standards with the seniors who came before, allowing them to engage in this thinking without challenging it establishes my own culpability.  My hope is to be a better teacher -- this is always my hope -- and I would not be satisfied with myself if my reflections on this issue did not lead to some modification in my behavior. So, banned it is.  And to let it escape one's lips in my presence will result in immediate consequences.  (What they are yet, I am not quite sure, but rest assured, there will be consequences!)

In all seriousness, students need to take responsibility for their choices and teachers need to keep students accountable for the choices they make.  When a student laments a low grade, but then rationalizes her situation by believing it was all a result of senioritis, she has taken her own power away and becomes tempted by other evils, cheating being a primary example of such.  When she suggest her problems stem from senioritis, she has said, I am a victim of something that is a figment of our collective imagination; I am the prey of a predator which does not exist.

More than any other single concept that I hope to teach to my students, the concept I believe is paramount is  self-efficacy.  And senioritis, or any other condition which allows us to push the blame onto something other than ourselves, erodes that self-efficacy and, instead, reinforces the notion that we are all weak and susceptible, so the pursuit of purpose and fulfillment is merely a wish on a dying star.

Senioritis does not need a cure, because it is not real.  By removing it from my students' vocabularies, at least for the hour a day they are with me, I am asking them to live with integrity.  That, although more rare than I would like, is something real.

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