Friday, September 7, 2012

Can You Make a Difference?

"Success isn't about how much money you make.  It's about the difference you make in people's lives."      -- Michelle Obama

This quote from Michelle Obama's speech (September 4, 2012) reminded me of an essay I wrote in 2000 when I taught in a jail school.  Here's my thoughts on making a difference in that one context:

In September, school begins again for most kids.  I've been teaching in a detention centre for young offenders, and our school runs all summer.  This is a good thing because by the time these kids end up in custody, they have usually missed a lot of school.

When I tell people where I work, their first response is to express concerns about my safety.  After all, children are in custody for assault, manslaughter, robbery -- the same crimes adults commit.  I reassure them that a detention centre school is safer than many high schools.  Their next question is, "Do you think you can make a difference?"  I dance around the question, perhaps replying, "Of course I  make a difference.  While they're in my class, they're not out stealing your car."  But I suspect that's not the answer my questioners were seeking.

Can I make a difference?  Those of us who work with young offenders wonder this a lot, especially when a child returns three months after his release.  If children do stay out of trouble, it's due to their own efforts and the hard work of child care workers, social workers, parole officers, parents, as well as teachers.

Will I have some kind of intangible effect on these students?  One day, 20 years from now, the students may remember that I encouraged them or trusted them -- and  that helped them get their lives on track?  My friend, Rachel, worked in an education program with disadvantaged youth.   Many had been young offenders and some were in the program as a condition of parole or bail.  Rachel expressed despair over what she called "the unremitting and heartbreaking disappointment intrinsic to the work."

"There's so little immediate positive reaction to the classroom experiences," she says, "that teachers dream up this 20-year theory to comfort themselves.  When activities are constantly rejected by clients in the present, how can they be viewed as positive 20 years later?"

The math teacher at my facility, Hilary, has a different point of view.  She uses the stock market to help children practice math skills.  Everyone in the class invests 100,000 imaginary dollars.  As they follow the changes in the market and become aware of economic forces, they practice adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.  Hilary says she ran into one of her former students downtown.  The first thing this 14-year-old said was, "Hey, Miss, did CIBC and TD merge?"

Amazed, Hilary realized that she can make students more aware one step at a time.  She sees that when the children return to jail, they slide back into the program and pick up their math lessons where they left off.  These students perform well in a small, structured, consistent environment.  Hilary says you can't look at the big picture.  We have to look at small individual differences.  All of these together can add up to a significant difference.

We never know just what will make a difference to another person.  My friend, Bernie, played high school basketball.  Once, in a playoff game, he missed every shot in the first half.  His coach was still willing to play him in the second half.  He says the willingness of that coach to play him made a huge difference in his life.  He was ready to give up -- but the coach could see something in him that he couldn't yet see himself.  He sank every shot in the second half.  Now Bernie's a jailteacher too.

Most of us in this job believe that the best place for these kids to be is around us. One of my students is reading Romeo and Juliet while listening to an audio cassette of the play.  He then watches two versions of Romeo and Juliet on video.  He can experience Shakespeare's story of tender love amidst senseless hate for an hour a day in a quiet, supportive environment --  an experience he never had on the outside.

Can I make a difference?  I honestly don't know.  But a girl in custody in British Columbia sent me an e-mail with her answer to the question.  She says, "I can tell you from my personal experience of being in a jail, that yes, you teachers do make a difference.  It may not seem like it at first.  Most of us aren't used to someone trying to help us, so when a hand is offered, we get wary.  My teacher has done a lot for me.  He has not only taught me how to keep from swearing at a piece of wood, but he taught me that if I have patience, wood can turn into a thing of beauty.  In addition, I can talk to him about everything.  It's great to know that there are people out there that even want to try to make a difference."

"What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."      -- Jane Goodall 

What do you think?  Can you, can we, make a difference?

1 comment:

  1. by mk at

    I do hope that I effect positive change. However, I wonder if there is a better mindset. Maybe we are better off wondering about the nature of ourselves rather than the effect we have upon others? Not that I don't think that making a difference in people's lives isn't important, but like your piece addresses, it is such a nebulous measure. If we are looking for evidence of our good or value in others, we might be making a simple situation into a complex one.

    You were doing good teaching those that needed it. The action was good, regardless of the response you could measure. You were a positive force.