Our Practice, Our Selves

In my undergraduate introductory education course, I read aloud the first or second class Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven.”

The central character is Rachel, and the setting is her school day on her eleventh birthday. School that day strips all the shine from what should be a day of celebration and joy for this child because her math teacher, Mrs. Price, demands that Rachel not only claim but also wear a red sweater the teacher is certain belongs to Rachel (although, as the readers, the teacher, and students discover, it doesn’t). A key moment in the story highlights the power dynamic between Mrs. Price and Rachel: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

Even for college students (and especially for my sophomores when I taught high school in rural South Carolina), I am hard to take those first days, and even weeks. My teacher persona and my class ask a great deal of students, who often feel overwhelmed, disoriented, and even angry.

So this semester I have just had “the talk” with that introductory class (and I also teach two first years seminars that are writing intensive); it includes acknowledging that I recognize how disorienting my class and I are for them as well as reminding them of “Eleven” and Rachel.

I very consciously want my students to be intellectually and ideologically rattled, but I also am committed to a much more important and foundational imperative: Students must always feel and be physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe in their learning spaces that I orchestrate.

Rachel in Cisneros’s story cannot learn on that day when she feels tiny, powerless, dehumanized. And the agent of those feelings are Mrs. Price, her callous attitude toward her students (children), and ultimately her practice.

Our Practice, Our Selves

Those of us who teach are now likely beginning new academic years, whether at the K-12 or higher education levels. As a result, I have read many posts and conversations on social media about our practices.

For my first year students, for example, I shared John Warner’s really fine piece, New Cell Phone/Computer Policy Draft Version. The transition from high school (significantly rule-based) to college is often difficult for students for reasons beyond the greater academic expectations. I have found that the transition to making decisions and being self-sufficient is far more disorienting for our students than even the challenges of college academics.

I have also come across online debates about handling late work from students and even a Tweet about a professor banning students from emailing except for emergencies.

After 31 years of teaching, then, I have been thinking again about how our practice teaches our students who we are and sends lessons that may not be in either our or our students’ best interests. I want here to outline a few of these in order to highlight what has always driven me as a teacher, coach, and parent: Seeking ways in which to avoid practicing what I believe is the greatest failure among adults, hypocrisy—holding children to standards that we ourselves never meet:

  • Let me start with Warner’s topic: cell phones and computers in class. Over my three decades as an educator, I have never attended a meeting with teachers or professors in which all of those attending paid full attention. In recent years, computers and cell phones are always out, and a significant number of teachers and professors are either multi-tasking or simply not paying attention. Thus, instead of imposing rules because I can, I discuss with students how and why their cell phones and laptops can be either productive or distracting in class—and how that is their decision, one that impacts everyone else in the room. I had similar talks with my high school students about needing to leave class to use the bathroom (automatic demerits where I taught, by the way). While teachers and schools are prone to embrace hard-line black-and-white rules, justifying them by invoking the real world, that approach to “rules” is in fact nothing like the real world.
  • The professor banning email from students struck me hard because I not only encourage students to email me, but also give them my cell number and mention texting. In fact, I want communication from my students—and I expect that a significant amount of it will be frustrating (asking me information they should know) and even so-called “disrespectful” (emails with “BTW” and other such text-ese). But I encourage these communications because I seek as many opportunities to teach students as I can, and I also am committed to doing so with patience and affording them the dignity they deserve. I often say in class that they should feel free to say what they want in class, in part so I can warn them never to utter such again, especially in a college classroom.
  • Both of the above, I think, are informed by my greatest pet peeve about (possibly) the most repeated commandment we make to teachers: Don’t be friends with your students. This always baffles and infuriates me because I cannot fathom what there is about friendship that isn’t appropriate for the teacher/student relationship. Kindness? Compassion? Attentiveness? I suspect that this dictum confuses a rightful restriction to the level of intimacy between teacher and student, but I also notice many teachers work so hard to maintain some artificial pose of professional distance between them and their students that all the humanity is drained out of teaching and learning. My students are my friends by default, and I love them. Again, I cannot comprehend how any of that should be avoided.
  • And just to address one practice linked more directly to instruction: How do we treat late work? [1] First, I have already examined high and reasonable expectations for student work—in which I made an important point related to the first bullet above: While editing several scholarly volumes, I have yet to have all work submitted complete and on time by college professors and scholars. In fact, in each situation, a number of the pieces were late (not just one or two) and many had significant citation problems (including not using the requested style sheet) as well as most needing heavy copyediting and feedback. So once again, while meeting deadlines and high-quality work are obviously important to instill in students, both are not as pervasive in the adult world as many teachers model in their classes: “I don’t accept late work,” “Late work starts at a B (or C),” and such. I no longer grade work, but if I did, I would never put a grade on an artifact of learning that didn’t represent the quality of the artifact (and not outside aspects unrelated to that quality). I did include considerations of habitually late work in quarter grades when teaching high school, but the key there was “habitually late,” and the need to address that habit.

Basic human kindness and dignity—these are the lessons I want my students to learn. And I don’t see those lessons in rules, and certainly not embedded in adult hypocrisy. I feel compelled as a teacher to work against both extremes confronted by Paulo Freire:

It is in this sense that both the authoritarian teacher who suffocates the natural curiosity and freedom on the student as well as the teacher who imposes no standards at all are equally disrespectful of an essential characteristic of our humanness, namely, our radical (and assumed) unfinishedness, out of which emerges the possibility of being ethical. (p. 59)

How often under the considerable weight of being a teacher do we bend to the callousness of Mrs. Price (“the authoritarian teacher”) and her ultimate failure—”Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”—at the expense of a child’s or young adult’s respect or dignity?

How often do we fall victim to what LaBrant confronted: “On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276)?

Let us be vigilant in recognizing that our practice is our Selves. Let us seek always to avoid any of our students feeling as Rachel does on her eleventh birthday, a victim of “adult weariness”:

Today I’m eleven. There’s a cake Mama’s making for tonight and when Papa comes home from work we’ll eat it. There’ll be candles and presents and everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you, Rachel, only it’s too late.

[1] See Late Work: A Constructive Response, Rick Wormeli

5 comments

  1. Paul T. Corrigan

    I love this line: “My students are my friends by default, and I love them. Again, I cannot comprehend how any of that should be avoided.”

  2. Audrey Kalman

    This post does wonderful job of revealing for me why I have such a visceral negative reaction to school authority: that “I’m-an-adult-and-I’m-right-and-you’re-a-child-and-unworthy” vibe. My reaction is so deeply ingrained that I still feel it, 40 years after the fact, when accompanying my own kids to meetings with their teachers or school administrators. Thank you for taking a different approach.

  3. judy neely

    I have always believed, as a teacher (as well as a human being), one of the greatest opportunities we give our students in education is our respect for them as an individual. The time allowed for us to interact with our students calls for us to hear not only ‘what’ they are saying but understand from ‘where’ they are saying it. Students will feel safe in a classroom where there is mutual respect; this allows that teachers aren’t always right. Thank you for speaking to this in your article.

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