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.