Autograph

Overheard a charming conversation between a drama teacher and one of her middle school students a few nights ago.  

Student: Miss, do you remember when you had those 2 girls in your class and they went on America’s Next Top Model?  

Teacher: Yes.

Student: Do you remember when they both lost?

Teacher: Yes.  Thank you for reminding me of that.

Student: Can I have your autograph?

Teacher: On your report card.

This teacher sounded like the kind of sarcastic soldier that was after my own heart.  I laughed at her words and turned around to throw her a commiserating smile.  She glowered at me (that means she looked angry or sullen).  I think she thought I was laughing at her.  If only I could have told her that I understood her feelings!  But I was worried about making the situation even more awkward, so I turned away.  Wherever you are, ma’am, know that I understand what it’s like to have students remind you of life’s shortcomings, though they may have the best intentions — like getting your autograph.  

Thankful-less

It is unlikely that a future president will mention in his inaugural speech, “Thanks to that specific teacher I had in college…”, but I still daydream about it during class.  I’ll look at a particularly diligent student, hunched over his notebook, and think, Yeah, that guy, he could be president.  I’ll be sure to say something wise to him to encourage a political career.  Better yet, I should encourage the girl in the corner.  She seems a little flighty now–and she has a peculiar obsession with cargo pants– but there’s passion there.  I can see the headlines: “First Female President Admits She Was Greatly Inspired by Writing Teacher during Second Year of College!”  The following article will thank me for gifting the country with a president who is both communicative and well-read.   Cargo pants will become the hottest fashion trend.

Maybe one day I’ll get a phone call from a successful mother, out of the blue, to let me know how she continues to use the communication skills I gave her to this day.  I’ll hear the scamper of little feet in the background and we’ll laugh about how she used to hate writing essays, but now realizes that they were for her own, and her children’s, good.

In the long-run, this may be a thankless job.  But teaching is an unconditional responsibility; I have to accept that I may never be appreciated as a celebrity in the same way I have to accept every aspect of my students’ broad range of learning abilities.  That doesn’t stop me from daydreaming that the next Nobel Laureate writer will donate a small portion of his winnings to my mortgage, so that I can continue to inspire future generations anxiety-free.

Silence is Silver

After walking into the classroom confidently on my first day of teaching, scrawling my name in capital letters across the blackboard, and handing out star-shaped nametags for the students, there was an awkward silence.  I sat at my desk at the front of the room and no one spoke.  As I stared at their nametags and wondered who would break the silence, I had a sudden and illuminating realization–

it was me. 

I was supposed to speak now, I was the one expected to fill the hush and endow the students with 90-education-packed minutes.  That’s when the true horizon of teaching loomed before me—this was more than banging on the desk as students fought each other to share their opinions on current events, as I had fantasized.  This was the type of calling that only the brave may answer.   

I immediately panicked and pointed at a nametag at random.  I asked them about any current events they were interested in.  They said the March on Wall Street campaigns.  I said “good, good,” and then there was silence again.  

I told them to take out their pens and papers and spent the next 30 minutes asking them to write about their a great conversation or interesting headline they had or read recently.  Every now and then I would interrupt the scribbling with assurances that this WOULD be graded; it sounded very teacher and important.  They certainly looked more serious after I said it.

I hadn’t planned for what would come after the nametags.  I hadn’t remembered that I was the one supposed to speak.  I was so used to sitting on the other side of the teacher’s desk, just listening, that I forgot how to voice my own ideas in a classroom. 

The silence that day was a valuable lesson.  Not a golden one, but valuable.

As I wait out that awkward silence on every first day of every class, I remember that my next words are the ones that will affect the course of my students’ experience.  It’s daunting, but fulfilling.  The students fill out their nametags and tentatively raise their hands to answer that very first question.  Rather than always try to pack the silence with my tutelage, I must instead teach them to fill the silence themselves, to use their own words to become masters of a craft that will be utilized in every aspect of their life.   

Be A Man

“Be a man.” “Man up.” “Grow some balls.” “Don’t let yourself be disrespected.” “Who wears the pants?” “You’re bigger for a reason.” “Don’t let your woman run you.” “Don’t cry.” “Boys don’t wear that color or say those words.”

I could go on.

The more I research how society is hurting women, the more I realize that society is also failing men, just as much. I see it in the ways my students group themselves; whom they sit with, whom they slide away from.  I see it in the way they pass each other in the hallway; whom do they fist bump?  Whom do they roughly push aside?  Whom do they ignore?  Whom do they ogle?  

We have a peer group culture in the U.S. school systems, and the young men are trying to secure their masculinity by parroting other men or aligning themselves with guys that will make them look more like the norm.  There are certain forms to being masculine, just like we’ve created forms for being feminine.  Both are oppressive, and I’m sorry for it.  I want the best for my students.  

The more we tell our guys to “be a man”, the more they think they have to live up to a certain standard of masculinity; the more they have to “prove it” to the world. Anything outside of that sphere becomes lesser; it becomes “not being a man.” And though we may not want to admit it, we can all think of things that fit an image of being un-manly. And that’s a failure on our part. When we tell a guy that he shouldn’t let himself be disrespected, and then we link protection and respect to hurting others or being the biggest dog on the block, then manliness becomes linked to violence.

Are there positives behind telling someone “be a man?”  Yes, the case can be made.  But I’d rather tell him, “Express yourself.  Be human.  I know this grade sucked, but we’ll work on it.  I know you like your classmate, but don’t try to dominate.”  

I have guy students come to my office hours upset about their grades.  Once or twice they tear up.  Then they beg me not to mention it.  Or they hide it as fast as possible.  

What’s worse are the guys who are so upset about their grades or are struggling in school and don’t express it AT ALL.  I’d prefer that they cry or yell.  Instead they sit across from me, stone-faced, hands twitching, muttering, asking the same questions again and again: “what if I work on this?  Can I still pass the class?”  I think years of “be a man” is taking its toll.  What’s going to happen when it’s not just a D grade on a college essay?  There are greater things that will shake their worlds and how will they get that out of their system, safely and healthily?  

If we’re going to tell our girls and women that they should be allowed to wear and feel and express themselves how they want without worrying about harassment, then we should be able to tell our men the same thing. Maybe next time don’t tell your guy “be a man” when he’s not acting the way we think he should. Maybe there’s another way to express that.

 

Dating Like A Pro

Why do students always have to sound so surprised when they find out I have a boyfriend?  Do they see me and immediately write me off?  Oh….not her. Poor dear.  Some people revel in their singlehood, first of all!  (I don’t even like cats!)  

Maybe they’re stunned because they imagine that teachers go into standby mode in a dark classroom once they leave, just waiting for students to come back and add meaning to their lives.  Maybe they suspect that teachers don’t have time to date.  Almost true.  I keep my private life as private as possible, but every now and then it slips out or they overhear or whatever.  And they’re SHOCKED.  

All Students: YOU have a boyfriend?!

Me: Yes. Why do you say it like that?  Like it’s shocking that I do?

Student: I don’t know….you just seem……………………professional.

Me: (choosing not to comment on long pause before “professional”) Professional people can’t date?  Anyway, I just keep him around to help me grade papers.

All Students: HE GRADES OUR PAPERS?!?!  
Shock and outrage ensue.

Me: I’M JOKING.  

A Birthday Conversation

For when I need to be reminded that I have a young face.  I KNOW.  As though getting pulled out of an airport security line because I’m not allowed to fly without adult supervision wasn’t enough.  

My student: What are you doing this weekend?

Me: Well, it’s my birthday, so I’ll be celebrating that.

Student: Wow! Your 21st birthday! You’ll finally be able to drink!

Me: What?! You thought I was 20 this whole time? What kind of authority do you think I have?

Student: Let’s just say every time you walk into the classroom, I think you’re an adorable freshman. And then you sit in the teacher’s chair and there is confusion.

Me: ………I control your grade.

Student: ………Happy Birthday!

PYT

I’m a pretty young teacher.  More than that, I have a young face.  The kind of face that will keep getting me carded at shady establishments for years to come.  The kind of face that got me pulled out of an airport security line because I wasn’t allowed to fly without adult supervision.  A young face that confuses my students into thinking I’m one of them.

It’s exhilarating.  It’s annoying.

I know a lot of teachers who struggle with connecting to their students.  Every teacher wants to — some just want it more than others.  And some confuse connecting as a teacher and connecting as a friend.  I do it, too.  Of course I want students to like me; it makes the next 16 weeks of my life so much more enjoyable.  But it can be an awkward struggle.  Stepping over the boundary between authority and buddy — “hey, so I determine your grade for the semester.  So it impacts your GPA for four years.  Why does that mean we can’t be friends?  I’m cool like you!”

Personally, I see this mostly happen with teachers who teach older students, maybe high school seniors or college level.  These are the kids who seem on the brink of possibility; stepping into the world for the fresh, first time, armed with the latest technology and the newest memes.  Maybe you control their grades, but they control your reputation.

Okay, maybe this is just me.  I’m willing to admit that.  That I get flashbacks to my own high school days when I see popular girls giggling in the corner while I’m lecturing.  Is my skirt stuck in the back of my leggings?! Is my rear jiggling funny when I write on the chalkboard?! Don’t look at me!  It doesn’t change how I treat them, but it can make me anxious.  I remember high school me and my…tribulations, I suppose.  They’re most likely not judging the way my stomach bulges over my skirt waist when I sit down but hey, I’m human.

I’m just saying that having a young face is a burden or a blessing when trying to connect with students.  The first day of class is always the same; I have to wait outside the classroom door while someone comes from the main office to unlock it for the first time and I end up standing there with a handful of 18 and 19 year olds.  They dress pretty well and even though I’m dressed professionally, I could pass as a student who maybe has an interview for an internship later or has fantasies about looking like a teacher — some people are into that.  It doesn’t help that I’m usually struggling with a handful of notebooks that I’m planning to hand out the first day.

I’ve had more than one student approach me to start a conversation.  It’s their first day, too.  They want to connect and make friends.  Maybe I look a little desperate, thinking about how I’m going to lead a class for 16 weeks single-handedly, and they want to reach out to the skittish freshman.  Maybe they like that teacher-look thing.  I don’t know.  But there’s always that awkward moment when they introduce themselves and ask me what year I am.  And I try a lame joke like, 25th year!  Cuz I’m a student of life!  But I’m actually your teacher!

And they look confused.  Or betrayed.  They don’t laugh.

And when I sit at the front of the class for the first time, I can visibly see the ripple of uncertainty that passes over them.  Wondering if I’m pulling a prank or if someone so young (in their eyes) has the authority to teach them.  Some of them take this very seriously.

That’s where a young face hurts.  A young face helps with that connecting I mentioned.  Because eventually, maybe 8 weeks in, they start to think that I’m not very far removed from their generation; they feel that in looking so young, I’m relatable.  They get comfortable.  I’m not an iron-haired grandma with a ruler.  I’m hip (what’s wrong with me) and young and I know catchy phrases.

By the end of the semester, they’re calling me by my first name, despite my insistence that I get addressed by my last.  They swagger into class a few minutes late, bursting to tell me and their peers about their weekend or new discovery.  A few will hand in work late because I’ll “understand” that they had midterms.  They come to my office hours just to chat and speculate about my love life.  They invite me to dinner at their family’s house and slip in swear words here and there in conversation.  The line of respect becomes blurred.  The line of friendship is even more blurred.  Lovely pros and heavy cons.

I’m sure when I’m fifty-five, I’ll be flattered to still be carded.

Needs More Analysis

This is the most common phrase I end up writing on all students’ essay — along with unpack furtherthis is opinion, and what does that even mean? (I don’t write that last one; I think it.  A lot.)

Needs more analysis is generally circled in purple since I’m worried that red pens will traumatize students and black pens make the page seem messy.  It is underlined or written in all caps.  It is pasted at the end of paragraphs or in the double spacing between sentences.

I think this concept initially eludes most students.  I get a lot of, But I told you what happened.  I said this is how it’s connected to the thesis.  What more do you want from me?!  EVERYTHING.  No, not really.  But MORE, certainly.

I think that’s the mantra of being a teacher, in the end: MORE.  GIVE ME MORE.

Give me your best.  Don’t just give me the obvious connection or the loose tie.  Don’t just repeat the thesis at the end of every paragraph.  Don’t just observe.  Analyze.  See the world around you, yes, but then make a connection to other things you see.  Understand that everything is connected, and has a ripple effect, and it affects YOU.  Go deeper than surface level assumptions.  Ask yourself, why do I even feel this way?  What’s been constructed around me to give me emotions?  What’s been put in me or on me?  Why?  What is the significance?  Why is this important?

Why should the reader care, if you obviously don’t as a writer?

You have thoughts; you’re texting them a mile a minute to someone else who is responding to them.  Don’t think that repeating yourself for 5 paragraphs with different words is the same as thinking.  You have opinions; convince me of them, don’t just yell them at me.  You have a voice inside of you that wonders about things; don’t even try to tell me that you enjoy not questioning.  Because that’s just not true of any human.  Sure, we can get numb to things, we can ignore or be apathetic or procrastinate; but we NEVER stop questioning.

Observations are just telling me that something happened.  Assumptions are just glossing over the bigger picture and staying in a comfort zone.  Opinions are all well and good, but they can be blinding.

Needs more analysis.

Examine, detail, question, wonder, explain, construct, interpret and for goodness’s sake, ANALYZE.