“You’re not old now. You’re old when you start teaching your former students’ kids. THAT’S when you know!”
We laughed. Mr. Herrera is the type of teacher who had a way of reminding people that we should laugh at the process of aging as teachers, especially those of us who love our jobs.
This year, I have the privilege of teaching three students whose siblings I’ve taught. While I absolutely knew two of them since they first waddled in with their older siblings for parent-teacher conference, I had to dig up some information on the third. After checking his facial features and mannerisms, I threw him a lob:
“So … did you ever have any brothers or sisters who came here?”
“Yeah, ummm, my one brother came in 2001 and my other brother Alex came a couple of years after.”
“Wait, Alex is YOUR brother?”
“Yeah, you taught him?”
“Yep. How’s he doing?”
“Great. He’s working on getting a job since a semester is coming up and …”
“You mean he’s working his way into college?”
I nodded, hiding my adulation that he’d kept pursuing his academics.
“Well, tell him I said hello.”
When I taught Alex, I didn’t have the slightest clue about how to set expectations. We battled it out in a way only a teacher and a student who secretly cared about what the other thought could. His mischief and my stubborn inexperience meant that, for two years, I would have a hard time with his less desirable behaviors. For no good reason.
At some point between then and now, I realized that the restrictions I had on Alex annoyed me as much as it probably annoyed him. I had too many non-negotiables, and I didn’t believe in many of them. Cognitive dissonance demands that, even though I don’t believe in setting up prison cultures in the least, I have to institute that type of structure to keep the kids quiet. Thus, as I started to let things slide, some students wouldn’t take my non-negotiables seriously. By the end of each school year, I found myself exhausted and wondering what happened from September to June.
This year, as I mentioned in my Edutopia article, I started off my behaviors with a slogan, but, when I got to details, I found plenty of clarity from just thinking about the student I was through my academic career. Here’s a set of sample questions and the answers I had for myself before anything:
1) Do I care whether the student writes in pen or pencil? (Yes, because having to write everything all over again on another sheet of paper annoys me to no end, so let them bring pencils.)
2) Am I into composition notebooks or binders? (Doesn’t matter, though I prefer binders because they usually have a place to tuck in work. Plus, we can refill the paper later.)
3) Is food allowed in the classroom? (Nope, but, if they bring breakfast, I’ll allow them time to finish it right outside the classroom. Water bottles are fine, but not juice.)
As I’m going through these questions in my mind, I’m seeing some of my own misgivings from previous years about classroom management (and pedagogy as well). As far as I’m concerned, everything a teacher does is a natural extension of themselves, flaws and all. Teachers like me, who don’t always want quiet classrooms, happen to thrive when they have some sort of din in their environments. We pick our spots for where to be rigid (in the classwork specifically), and ease off on the others.
Because the student I was would have preferred a little autonomy and space to doodle while doing math. I’m hoping when I get back in tomorrow, the students I used to teach appreciate my growth.
Mr. Vilson, who thanks God and the United Federation of Teachers (my union) for fighting for my right to stay home due to a personal issue. It’s a blessing, really …