Things I Think About Before I Ever Walk Into A Classroom #1: Who ARE You In There?

I’ve been teaching for a while now, and at this point it would be very easy for me to fall back on the tried-and-true and rely on my experience to pull me through without too much effort on my part. But one of the most wonderful things about this profession is that every new term is a fresh chance to reflect, reconsider, and redefine my approach to the work. I went into teaching because I loved learning. I still love learning. Therefore, I use each new chance to teach as a new chance to learn. At the end of a term, I give myself some time to just sit back and be glad it’s all over and done with–hurrah! I survived another round of final papers and examinations! But then, over the course of the few weeks’ hiatus between terms, I take advantage of the relative down time to think about my teaching. What went well? What didn’t go well? Why do I think this is so? Over the course of several years of this practice, I have started to see a basic pattern in terms of the issues this thinking raises and addresses for me. There are five things that I really focus on as I prepare for each new term, and I have found that without fail, the ways in which I address these matters sets the tone for my teaching and pedagogical choices. Because it has proven so effective for me to think about these matters intentionally and seriously before I begin a new class, I’ve chosen to include them here as guiding principles for other graduate students who are newer to the profession, although they may prove useful for more experienced educators as well.

In no particular order, here are the five things I think about before I ever walk into a classroom:

WHO AM I AS AN INSTRUCTOR?

WHAT DO I WANT MY STUDENTS TO GET OUT OF THIS CLASS?

HOW AM I GOING TO ACCOMPLISH THOSE OBJECTIVES THROUGH THE COURSE READINGS AND ASSIGNMENTS?

HOW DOES MY SYLLABUS SUPPORT MY VIEW OF MYSELF AND MY CLASS?

WHAT ARE MY PEDAGOGICAL VALUES, AND HOW AM I GOING TO IMPLEMENT THEM IN MY TEACHING?

Because each of these questions is a MAJOR question, I’m going to hone in on one per post, rather than trying to cram them into a single, epic-long offering. I’ll begin at the very beginning:

WHO AM I AS AN INSTRUCTOR?

As a human being in my own right, I am a headstrong, stubborn, willful, enthusiastic, generous, over-achieving go-getter who also occasionally drops the ball entirely and spends the whole day on the couch bingeing on whole seasons of a favorite show. I’m an introvert who regularly masks as an extrovert. I can be quite self-righteously indignant when something really matters to me, I occasionally eschew reason entirely in favor of my personal feelings in informal discussions, I am a deeply loyal friend and staunch champion of the underdog, I am incredibly courageous when I need to be (although I avoid unnecessary confrontation like the plague), and I tend to flit from one thing to another with no rhyme or reason. I worry. A LOT. And I have found that this particular meme is an excellent summing-up of my brain’s preferred functioning mode:

how-my-brain-works

Also, in a stunning revelation only available to readers of my blog (and anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes in my company) the following meme is also highly applicable to me:

fuckalot

And when I say “a lot” I mean several times daily. And when I say “fuck” you can replace it with pretty much any other “colorful metaphor” one might come up with in thinking of similar words that might be said in any given situation in which the use of such colorful metaphors could be deemed applicable. I use them all. I’m an equal-opportunity Sailor’s Daughter.

(By the way, the above meme is grammatically incorrect. “Well-educated” takes the hyphen. I feel the need to point that out because, in addition to being a bit of a Sailor’s Daughter, I am also really, really fixated on little things like hyphens and commas and misspellings. I’m that person who can spot the single typo in a full page of text just by glancing at the page. It’s fine to judge me for it. I judge myself for it.)

Clearly, then, that last one about spotting typos and grammar woes aside, many of my personal characteristics—while endearing and charming to my friends—would probably not go over well in a classroom full of students. So…given my personal shortcomings (I mean, charming idiosyncrasies), what’s a gal to do?

Well, I can tell you from personal experience that the answer is NOT to try on a completely new personality.

I believe that it is imperative that we adhere to our sense of who we are as instructors, because if you put on a façade, the students are going to know it’s phony and you are going to come across as a.) fake and inauthentic; b.) untrustworthy; or c.) a total arrogant bitch incapable of having a real relationship with your students. None of which is conducive to a positive and effective classroom environment in which real education is taking place.

Don’t even try not to be yourself in front of a room of students. You can’t “fake it until you make it,” because whatever you give your students on the first day, you have to consistently deliver for the rest of the term. And then you may have those students again, and you’ll have set up the basic expectation of who they think you are as an instructor. That means if you give them “heartless bitch who follows all the rules,” and then someone with a heartbreaking story gets you to bend a rule at any point in the term, you’ve been outted. If you give them “I’m your best friend” and then try to get them to adhere to the syllabus, you’re probably screwed. (No pressure here….)

The answer is NOT to decide who you are as a person—you’re already who you are as a person—but rather, who you are as an instructor. What REALLY MATTERS to you as the person in front of the classroom? Do you want a formal or an informal relationship with your students? Do you want to be viewed as an authoritarian figure? Do you want to be viewed as someone who cares? Do you want to be viewed as an expert in your field? What tone do you want to set for your classroom—collaborative? Cooperative? Disciplined? Do you want your students to believe they can stop by your office hours, or do you want them to think they need to rely on themselves or other members of the class? Do you want to be stricter on some things than others? What things, and why? Do you want your students to feel like they can laugh at your mistakes (and, by association, at their own)? How much does following the rules matter to you? How comfortable are you with winging it or being spontaneous? At the end of the term, what kinds of comments would you want to see on your course evaluations? And most importantly, how does each of these scenarios look to you, based on your personality-already-in-progress?

The answers to the questions I’ve posed depend on a huge variety of variables—your age, your teaching and other professional experience, even your birth order or where you were brought up and in what kind of a family. There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. But having answers to them can really help you formulate a workable teaching persona in the classroom. Don’t be like me. Don’t take the long, hard route to figuring out what kind of instructor you are.

DEVELOPING A TEACHING PERSONA (THE HARD WAY)

I was a student teacher as an undergraduate. I will never forget the day my cooperating teacher sat me down and said, “Melissa. You are a DELIGHTFUL young lady and I think you will make an EXCELLENT teacher, but you MUST develop your teaching character! Have you ever been in a theatrical production? Being in front of the classroom is like being on a STAGE. You MUST be the star of your show, or your students have no reason to watch you! I want to see you working on this over the next several weeks. You need to act the part of the teacher you want to be. Be the AUTHORITY! Be the STAR!”

My 22-year old ears heard this: “You suck at this. You have to come up with a teaching character and act like a professional teacher in the classroom, and then when you go home you can be whoever the hell you like.”

The fact of the matter was, all she was really asking me to do was to think about my delivery of the instruction. She never meant for me to change my basic personality or approach to the work. In fact, she thought I was a GREAT teacher. (Years later, she told me I was one of the best student teachers she had ever worked with.) But I didn’t understand what she was asking for—I thought she wanted a total personality overhaul. I thought that in order to pass student teaching and get my certification, I needed to be a PROFESSIONAL TEACHER (insert echoing, booming male voice-over here.)

So, that’s exactly what I did. I started dressing like my cooperating teacher, I aped her vocal inflections, I aped her stance in front of the room, I aped her style of teaching… and in the end I got my certification, and glowing letters of recommendation, and I knew NOTHING about myself as an instructor or as a person, because I had gotten so good at being her that I didn’t know who I was in the classroom. This was bad. This was very, very bad. Because you see, she was a master teacher with 30 years in the classroom, and I was a wet-behind-the-ears twenty-something with 6 months in the classroom. She had tried-and-true practices that worked for her. I had….her tried and true practices that worked for her, and also for me under her instruction. But I did not have my own identity as a teacher, and I did not have my own teacher’s toolbox of ways to handle various scenarios. What I did have, was a firmly held belief borne out in my excellent evaluations and grades that “fake it ‘till you make it” is the way to go. So, I got my first teaching job, and I plunked down $400.00 on a teaching wardrobe, and I walked in there ready to go, rules memorized, lessons planned to the final seconds of class, looking and acting the part of the authoritative, master teacher who accepted no excuses and demanded my students’ best at all times.

Trust me, y’all, the students were not fooled by my false genuinely authoritative approach to teaching. But they HATED MY GUTS for being such a total controlling, uncaring bitch.

And frankly, I hated myself, too. I would put on my teaching uniform and go to work every day and stand there and yell at them for not having done their homework, or doing badly on a quiz, or not doing the reading, or being tardy to class, and think the whole time, “what are you yelling at them for? You don’t even CARE about this.” Well, but I thought I was supposed to care about those things. I mean, don’t ALL teachers care whether their students do the homework/reading/well on quizzes/come to class on time?

Well, yes and no. What I cared about—and still care about—was whether or not the students understood the material, whether or not they were making the connections they needed to make, whether or not my instruction was helping them get where they needed to go in order to succeed as students not only in my class, but beyond my class into other academic areas. But I didn’t understand the disconnect that was going on between what I wanted for myself and for them, and what I was delivering, in the classroom. Because I was so doggoned professional, y’all. Lesson plans, curriculum pacing, assignment design, high-stakes testing prep… I had it down. But what I lost along the way was my personal connection to the work. In a terrible way, I was TOO professional, in that I forgot to be a real person up there, teaching real people. When they blew it, it was a reflection on my work, my identity as a teacher, my integrity as an educator, and NO WAY was it MY fault they weren’t doing well, because I was a professional teacher! Had to be the kids, right? Obviously, they just didn’t like me because I was demanding excellence from them that they didn’t want to deliver. Didn’t they know how hard I fought for them during faculty meetings and in-services about standardized and high-stakes testing, occasionally to the point of insubordination and threats of being fired if I didn’t tone it down? Didn’t they realize how wrong I thought the education system was and how important I thought they were? (never mind that frankly, looking back on it now, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a student in my classes then, either. What an evil bitch. No way could you believe that woman cared about her students AT ALL, no matter what she said.) How on earth were they supposed to know any of that, when I did my utmost every, single day to adhere to that very system I was so hell-bent on changing for the better? I honestly didn’t have the energy to be nice to them in the classroom, with all the energy I was expending on their behalf outside of the classroom. We were ALL just going through the motions at that point, only my students were too honest to bother faking it anymore—I didn’t seem to care about them, why should they bother with me? They had better things to do with their time than “busy work” for someone who didn’t really seem to be on their side, for all her good intentions.

So I’d come home, and change into sweats, and go for a run, and eat my Ben and Jerry’s, and revise my lesson plans and rewrite my curriculum pacing guide, and mark really bad papers and record zeroes because they just didn’t even bother to do the work for me sometimes, and cry because I sucked at teaching and my students didn’t like or respect me, even though I really REALLY liked them, and wanted them to do well, and wanted to be a great teacher for them. Well, for crap’s sake, how were they supposed to KNOW that? All I ever did was criticize them for what they did wrong, or didn’t do, or could do better. All I ever did was demand excellence…without truly giving them the support they needed in order to develop and deliver that excellence. In short—I expected WAY too much, both from them and from me. I expected mastery. Anything less—from them, or from me—was failure.

Whoa, Nelly. Whoa, whoa, whoa! This is what happens when a headstrong, know-it-all, smart and well-trained but insecure new teacher runs up against the barriers of high-stakes testing, job performance tied to test scores, and her own personal daemons. Ugly, i’n’it?

Fortunately for me, at a crossroads in my career and on the verge of walking away from education forever because I just didn’t have what it took, because I couldn’t stand the work I was doing, because I hated the way the schools were run and the way I thought I had to run my class and pretty much everything about the whole educational affair, I ended up getting a job in a completely different learning environment—one where I wrote my own classes and created my own curriculum and was trusted and even expected to deliver the material as I saw fit, as opposed to following state-mandated teaching regulations. It was my dream job. I saw it as my last chance to make this teaching thing—the thing that mattered to me more than anything else—work. And I almost blew it, because for the first several months, I walked into that classroom with my cooperating teacher’s bag of tricks (bastardized by a few years’ of my own tinkering with it.) I was authoritarian, disciplinarian, In Charge, and PROFESSIONAL in all-caps. I was not there To Be Liked, I was there To Teach.

And it DID NOT WORK.

I was dragged into offices for the next year or two. I was pleaded with, sternly lectured to, admonished, cajoled, coaxed, threatened, begged, and once, unforgettably, asked by one of the school’s administrators, “What the FUCK do you think you’re doing in that classroom? Why can’t you just be your fucking self? Who ARE you in there? Do you EVEN KNOW?”

Which, frankly, was the question I needed to be asked the whole doggoned time. Which is the question every teacher should ask first, before anything else (maybe minus the “fuck” parts, although I honestly think that was what got my attention in the end.) Which, quite frankly, is the basis for this entire post; to wit:

WHO ARE YOU IN THERE?

It took me years of thinking about it, reflecting on it, writing about it, talking about it, and revisiting it, but here is who I am in the classroom, and why it matters.

As their teacher, I care about my students as people, but more so as learners in my classroom.

This matters because it sets the boundaries. When you are my student, I am not going to make it okay for you to skip my class or turn something in late or not at all because you are overwhelmed, because you are tired from partying or working too much, because your girl/boyfriend broke up with you, or because of whatever is going on to adversely affect your performance in my class. I am not going to make excuses or allow you to make excuses for poor academic performance. As your teacher, my focus is on your learning in my class. That said, I will do what I can to support you and to alert you to the supports available to you in order to help you handle it when “life happens.” I will help you, but in the end it is up to you to make it work. When you are in my classroom, during class, you are my focus; everything I am doing is an active attempt on my part to help you achieve the course objectives. If you don’t get what we are doing and how it is intended to help you succeed in the class, you have to let me know that in order for things to change; in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I assume what I’m doing is working for everyone. In the classroom, I will make sure that I am a resource for you, and I will provide an encouraging, facilitative, positive, inclusive learning environment….but, you have to do the learning. If you are doing the learning, I will actually go out of my way to help you succeed. If you’re not bothering…why should I invest in you? Give me a reason to invest. It doesn’t take much—just show me you want to learn, and I’ll gladly teach you.

As their teacher, I am invested in their development as members of the community and as individuals, but only to the point where my class objectives meet their lifestyles.

This matters because it determines how far I go in terms of prying into, intervening in, or seeking to shape, alter, or influence my students’ personal interests and concerns. I categorically refuse to act as a mother, sister, or best friend figure for my students. I am eager to help them improve their knowledge base, their critical thinking, reading, and writing skills, and to help them develop the habits of being that will serve them in good stead as successful adults. I do not give a rat’s ass whether they are tardy, absent, or leave early; if they feel like they are getting what they need from me and the class, we are good. If they do not feel they are getting what they need from me and the class but are tardy, absent, or leave early, this is completely their problem. If they do not feel they are getting what they need from me and the class but are always present for the entire class period, we need to have a conference to figure out what to do about it. The suggestion of that conference must come from the student. In any case in which a student’s life seems threatened by something or someone, I will report this to the appropriate authorities regardless of the student’s opinion on the matter. I’m eternally thrilled to hear about my students’ triumphs and successes, concerns, fears, and failures, especially when I can be of help or encouragement or when they want to share how my work has helped them or what I might be doing better as an instructor. Generally, beyond that I don’t want to know much more about their personal lives, at least not while they are or might be in my classes. This is because their performance in my class according to my syllabus guidelines will always be the basis of their grade in my class, and some students have trouble dissociating a personal relationship from the grade given. It’s not my job to change your thinking, but it is my job to challenge the ways in which you think. I’m going to do that. It might get uncomfortable. That’s called learning. At no point do I expect you to think what I think, the way that I think it—all you have to do is to be able to articulate clearly what you think, and why it’s valid thinking. I’m not going to pry into your beliefs or ideologies or values, beyond demanding that you bring critical thinking to bear on any given subject in my class. I am going to insist that you contribute to a positive, inclusive, accepting critical environment.

It’s on the syllabus so I don’t have to think about it.

REALLY, it is. If it is on the syllabus, that’s it. That’s the bottom line. I write those things as much for myself as for my students. The syllabus is my blueprint for how the course is going to go, it holds me accountable, and it holds the students accountable, and I DO NOT make exceptions beyond what the syllabus allows. If in the future I need to revisit a policy that’s not working I make a note of it, but I do NOT change policies midway through the term, for any reason. Why? Because I want to spend class time, office hours, and any other time devoted to my teaching thinking actively about what we are doing in class, about my students’ progress and work, and about my own instructional methods and innovations, not about whether or not to waive a late assignment penalty or allow an extra absence. I DO NOT make exceptions to my syllabus—because it’s not in anyone’s best interests to break a contract, and because it’s too hard to keep track once I start making exceptions. The REASON there is a syllabus is so I don’t HAVE to think about those types of things…because that’s not what I’m interested in as an instructor, so it’s not where I want to put my energy.

I take my work as an educator very, very seriously. I take myself as a person very seriously. I take my students as people very seriously. But I refuse to take myself seriously in the classroom.

Let me explain this one a little more. There is no job in the world more important than mine, and I firmly believe that—teaching is the MOST IMPORTANT JOB IN THE WORLD. And because of this, I take my teaching very seriously—in that, I have intentionally selected course objectives and intentionally selected readings and activities designed to foster the acquiring of the skills students need in order to attain those objectives. I take myself as an educator seriously, in that when I am in the classroom I am focused on my students’ learning and my own teaching, on the pedagogy, on the interaction, on what to do better every time. And I take my students as learners in my classroom seriously, in that I offer myself and my experience as a resource for them and help them develop the skills they need to be successful learners for my own class and beyond. All that said…I’m also a human being, and at times quite a ridiculous one. I cannot walk, think about something, and drink coffee at the same time without spilling on myself. I trip over backpacks. I stumble over my own feet. I lose words and gesture wildly while trying to find them again. I get halfway through verbally expressing an idea and suddenly cannot remember for the life of me what I was on about. If you’ve ever heard me sneeze, you know that it is impossible NOT to laugh when you hear that thing. So, I do. And I give my students permission to laugh at me, too. Because my teaching is serious, and their learning is serious, and the class objectives are serious…but as a person I’m just NOT that serious, I’m funny and comical and have a zany sense of humor and that’s going to come out whether I want it to or not. A lesson I learned the hard way, as you can see in my story above, is that being a serious educator does not—and, quite frankly, CANNOT—involve leaving your sense of humor at the door. Made a mistake on the syllabus? Laugh and correct it. Said something ridiculous in a Q&A? Who doesn’t at some time or another? Laugh, correct yourself, and move on. Mis-graded something? Apologize and chuckle over it. Model for your students how to graciously acknowledge and then correct human foibles and failings. In other words, to put it as succinctly as possible—check your ego at the door. The class isn’t about you, and if it is, you are doing something wrong.

I’m not perfect and that’s what makes it so much fun.

If I knew everything about teaching and were a perfect teacher in every class session in every course I ever taught, not only would I be terrifically bored ,but I think I would also be terrifically boring. Mastery doesn’t mean perfection; it means having the tools at your disposal to pick things up when they fall apart. Experiment; try new things; be willing to leave your comfort zone and attempt things as an educator that you haven’t tried before; be willing to fail at some new initiative, because that is how you—and, consequently, your students—stand to get better. If you knew everything that was going to happen every day in every class you ever taught, wouldn’t you already be dying of boredom? Leave room for the unexpected, for discovery, both on your part and on the part of your students. When you make mistakes acknowledge them and think of other ways to handle those situations. Don’t make light of it, but don’t dwell on it either. Take it as a challenge to become even better. I love going into a classroom knowing what I plan to do and how I plan to do it and then having my students take me in a completely different direction, because I learn as much as they do. If I stayed in control of the class the entire time, none of us would get very far. Be willing to learn through your teaching, to learn from your students, and not always to be in charge and to be the expert. That’s when you get to have fun discovering new things, too. That’s when teaching is a calling, and not just your job.

Just be yourself.

Here’s the thing: as the daughter of a career soldier, rest assured I can throw a glare in your direction that will make you cry. I can verbally take you down with a single, well-aimed comment. I can BE the hard ass, if I need to—but, I’d honestly rather not. I’m a pretty easy-going gal, all things considered, I really dislike confrontation, and in the end I’d rather laugh at you than yell at you—so, the authoritarian, disciplinarian thing just doesn’t work for me. It’s too hard to keep it up indefinitely, and frankly my students find me intimidating enough without my adding to it by playing up a side of me I don’t even like. Once I gave myself permission not to be the disciplinarian in the classroom, things got infinitely better for me and for my students. Likewise, although as I have said I can be very stubborn and have extremely strong feelings about certain issues as a person, I do not allow my personal feelings to cloud my judgment as an educator, and I do not permit myself to be willfully stubborn in the classroom (unless it’s to uphold the syllabus.) I refrain from swearing in class (most of the time) and I stay focused on the task at hand (thanks to the syllabus). But in the end, I’ve learned that my personal characteristics are actually in many ways my greatest strengths. My utter obsession with my subject matter–albeit something of a liability at cocktail parties and wine nights with non-scholarly friends and family–is actually a bonus in the classroom. My students respond in kind to my enthusiasm and generosity; they follow my lead when I display courage in discussing harder subjects, they appreciate my conviction and strong stance on things that matter to me. But this is because in turn, I am willing to be transparent and to make myself vulnerable to them. When, rather than blaming them for being under-prepared and thus taking too much of my time in grading, I acknowledge that I am having trouble getting the grading done, or in following a crap discussion I express to them that a particular class didn’t go as well as I had hoped and ask for their feedback, I open the door for a conversation in which they get to work with me for a solution to the problem, rather than seeing us in an antagonistic, “she-doesn’t-really-care-about-us fashion.” I criticize their performance, but I am also deeply invested in their success, and I am an equal-opportunity criticizer-praiser of their work—but I’m also deeply invested in respecting them, so when I am critical it is always in the interest of helping them become better thinkers and learners in my class. My feedback, regularly offered over the course of any given class session, makes them feel like their work in my class is valued and that I am taking them seriously. But at the end of the day, I’m me, who also teaches, not The Professional Teacher, and I have learned that generally, my students respond to and respect that most of all. They like me, if they like me, because I make it safe to like me… because I like me, and I’m not afraid to BE me in the classroom. Most importantly, although it’s easier if they do and obviously I prefer it, I don’t expect my students to like me, and they don’t have to like me in order for me to be an effective instructor for them; they just have to find a way to use my instruction to meet the course objectives. And so, it’s all much easier because it’s so much more real.

I mean, I’m not saying I never have bad days, because we ALLLLLLLLLL have bad days. But now the bad days lead to productive thinking about ways to improve my teaching instead of just wallowing in self-pity and, in general, I absolutely adore teaching, and my students seem to enjoy learning from me, and who KNEW it could be that easy?

The bottom line here is that because I have thought more carefully about who I am and what I care about as an instructor, my evaluations have gone from “she’s an arrogant know-it-all” (and worse!) to, “her class is hard but she is a great teacher and I never learned so much in a single class before”—which is EXACTLY the kind of feedback I want to hear. More importantly, I LOVE walking into my classes, I LOVE the work we do when I’m in my classes, and there’s honestly very little else I would rather be doing than working with my students—because I dropped the façade and developed a teaching persona that is in line with my own values as a learner and educator. And that has made all the difference.

So, before you walk into your classroom, do a little thinking: WHO ARE YOU IN THERE?

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About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
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