This week has been a lot of work. I arrived at the school at 7:00 every morning and left at 9:30 every night. As someone who took a long time to realize the importance of having a life outside of work, I’m a bit frustrated by my current schedule. On the plus side, though, I’ve learned a lot this week about myself, the people around me, and teaching.
After my last post, I was pretty apprehensive about walking into my elective again. I didn’t know what to expect from my students, and while I had some ideas about how I could get them under control, I wasn’t sure if any of them would work. Would reviewing expectations be a good place to start, or would that seem patronizing? If I made a seating chart, would they even follow it? I ended up doing my best to walk the line between telling them what to do and losing my cool. I set some ground rules and forced them to learn about sensory details for twenty minutes. They watched a slam poet perform (silently, which was encouraging from my perspective) and practiced using sensory details. There was some push-back, particularly from two students who would rather use class to flirt than learn, but I never caved. For the last twenty minutes of class, I had them play a game that forced them to use their five senses. I blindfolded them and gave them plastic bags (some were filled with food and others were filled with miscellaneous objects like pencil shavings) and had them guess what was in the bags. They liked it because they got to watch each other freak out over the weird textures and they got to eat candy in class. I liked it because they were learning something about writing.
When class finished, I felt like things were going well, until one of my students asked if she could talk to me when everyone else left. I wasn’t sure what she wanted to talk about–it was only the second class and she was one of my most engaged students–but I was still feeling pretty good, so I wasn’t too nervous. She waited until the room was completely empty and got close so that she wouldn’t have to talk loudly. At first, I couldn’t hear what she said. I just stared at her blankly, so she repeated herself.
“I’m a boy.” And again, for emphasis, “I’m a boy.”
I’m pretty sure I brought my hand to my mouth like a scandalized old woman. I apologized repeatedly for mistaking his gender, and because I sensed the apologies were getting old, I finished with, “Thanks for telling me. I’ll do better.”
When I first wrote about diversity, I was focusing on race. I assumed matters revolving around gender wouldn’t be much of a problem for me, since I deal with gender discrimination as a woman every day. I didn’t realize that I’m still so quick to categorize people into gender binaries–that if I see someone with long hair and a higher voice wearing “feminine” clothes and hanging out with girls, I’ll just assume they’re a girl, and in doing so, I can hurt them.
At Breakthrough, we really emphasize creating a safe space for our students. During training, I was frequently complimented on my warm and accepting attitude. While the conversation with this student seemed to end well (we’re on fairly good terms now, despite that awkward start), I was disappointed in myself for failing to create that safe space, especially for a student that works hard in my class, a student that makes it so clear he wants to be there. I realize, though, that my disappointment is probably more for my sake than for my student’s. I prided myself on my ability to create a warm, safe environment, and when I realized how easily I could hurt a student (honestly, I didn’t think for a second about assuming his gender), it was pretty humbling.
It seems like an important part of teaching is remembering that none of it is really about me. I find myself thinking about how the students feel about me all the time. When that student first told me that he was a boy, I was upset for him. But later, after apologizing and correcting my mistake, I was upset for me, because I was worried I’d damaged one of the few positive relationships I had in my elective. Additionally, when my students didn’t want to listen to me on Monday, I took it personally. I was upset that they didn’t like me when I liked them. However, when I talked to some of my coworkers about the situation, they all collectively groaned.
“Those two? They dated last year, and it was super toxic,” one of the teachers told me. The drama between two of my students got so intense last year that it had to be brought up to the directors. In addition, the boy who’s been giving me the most trouble does this to most teachers, particularly female teachers. “He just likes to push our buttons. I had him in one of my classes and he ruled me.”
When I’m teaching, it can be hard not to take it personally when students don’t seem to like me, just like it’s difficult not to be happy when students start to warm up to me. But at the end of the day, how they feel about me has little to do with who I actually am. They all bring different things to the classroom–some of them are less inclined to focus in class because of learning disabilities, complicated relationships with other students, and maybe there’s some mild sexism at play here too. On top of that, they have expectations for me–they all have an idea of what they want me to teach them and how they want me to teach it–and that affects how they feel about me. Honestly, though, it doesn’t really matter what their expectations are as long as they’re learning. As long as I can help my students, whether or not they like me really shouldn’t be my main concern.
Last night, one of my students told a coworker how much she likes my writing class. “I like that she jokes around with us and makes it fun.” It felt so good to hear that, to be told that there’s something I can bring to the table to make learning fun for these kids. But no matter how much I want to let my students have fun, I can’t be afraid to challenge them. Sometimes, that’s going to mean they won’t like me as much, but it’ll be worth it to see them grow.