Changing Places: A Teacher Grows
Some of my most effective years as a teacher were very early in my career. Although I had no experience in the classroom and was new to my subject matter, I had the advantage of being close in age to the freshmen college students I was teaching. Their interests, hopes, dreams, and anxieties were close to my own. I could tailor my teaching to connect to their most important concerns—these were mine as well. During my first year as a teacher, when I was 26, I wrote a sample essay for my expository writing class about what it felt like to go home for Thanksgiving. I would never presume to do this now. But at the time, I didn’t think twice, and the essay got a good response. Some of the subsequent essays I received from students were better than my own.
When I married and had children, my effectiveness as a teacher dropped precipitously. Although college kids still like the Berenstain Bears books and Jolly Ranchers, they like them in a different way than do 6-year-olds (the nostalgia of young adults was a topic of an earlier column). As my attention shifted to my young children, I lost touch with my adolescent self. At the same time, the experience of adolescence also began to change, if not fundamentally, then superficially. My students dressed differently and listened to different music than I did at their age. They had also begun to relate to technology, while I was still, at the time, technologically ignorant. In short, I didn’t have the references they did. And so my teaching for a period of more than a decade was not what it had been. I found myself “pushing” students—expending a great deal of effort to achieve a result that should come with more ease and joy.
But a curious thing happened about 10 years ago, when my children entered high school. I began to relate better to my students. Once again, I could understand their allusions, their emotional yearning, their stubbornnesses and disinclinations. But unlike my earlier connection to them as equals, I now understood them in my capacity as a parent. I was bemused and indulgent, and, when necessary, firm. And because I knew them second-hand through my children, I was not sucked into their adolescent drama. I didn’t take their behavior personally, which may be one of the most difficult but crucial elements in good teaching. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have expectations or be tough; it’s just that you shouldn’t see a student’s failure to, say, get to class on time, do homework, or proofread work as a personal affront. Teachers can inspire students to please them, but only up to a point.