Saturday, July 22, 2006

Some thoughts on teaching.

It's been pretty easy to get back in the rhythm of teaching, even though this summer school experience is far from typical (in terms of jamming stuff into four weeks, and also due to the classes being 3 hours long). I like to talk with kids about their experiences in other classes — falling short, of course, of merely gossiping about my colleagues — and it's really gone a long way toward shaping how I approach a class.

In the course of doing some thesis revisions, I was thumbing through Susan Ohanian's excellent book, One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards. (That title requires a bit of explanation, which I can do over a beer sometime in August when I have a little time.) This paragraph caught my eye, and I think it bears repeating.

I'm a good third-grade teacher not because I have a master's degree in medieval literature from the University of California or a zillion course hours from New York University on teaching and the humanities, but because I like kids. Plain and simple, I like them. Newspaper and TV editors are enamored by the very idea of retired military men and corporate middle managers going into the schools to teach discipline and mathematics. Well, good for them for making the effort, but if they are to persevere and even triumph, their preeminent concern must be to cherish the children in their care.

Ohanian is an elementary school teacher and I deal with teenagers, so we have slightly different classroom dynamics going on. However, her main point rings true: good teachers like kids.

I told my class on Friday afternoon that, out of the 700 or so kids I've taught in my career, there are only two who come to mind that I genuinely didn't like, and I think one of those had serious emotional problems which came out as hostility towards me. They seemed astonished at this, but I swear to you that it's true.

I guess part of the class' astonishment was the fact that I mentioned that "neither of the two are in this room right now," and there's a kid in that class who drives me up the goddamn wall (who we'll call "P"), pretty much all the time, every day, and everyone in the class knows it.* I carried on, "Yeah, you all know P pretty much makes me want to kill him, because he doesn't know when to shut up. And he says some pretty ridiculous things at times. But, you know, underneath it all, P's kind of a likeable guy." (I decided to eschew the gender-neutrality of P, mostly because it would've been irritating as hell to read.)

We've all had teachers we've liked or hated, who were good or awful. Unfortunately, we tend to remember the terrible ones much more easily than the great ones; I know I do. I like my kids, and I hope they like me, too... but there's a fine line between "wanting the kids to think you're a cool guy who tells jokes" and "having the kids like you because you treat them fairly and teach them a lot of great stuff that's useful to them." I shoot for the latter.

* It's far easier for teachers to think that students don't realize how classroom dynamics work and that you can treat them in their own little compartmentalized way, but let's be honest, they know way more than the teacher does about what goes on between those desks. So, why not say out loud what everybody's thinking anyway? They all know P's a loudmouth — they can hear him just as well as I can — and they know that sort of thing drives teachers bananas. I'm a firm believer in transparency, in many aspects of my life, including inside those four classroom walls.

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