Lessons I Learned From my Students

When I went to college and decided to become a teacher, naturally I immediately enrolled in all the required pedagogy and methodology classes.  I took notes and listened to education theory and practiced what they preached.

And I learned some really helpful points…..like…

1.  Do not use red pens because it can damage a student’s confidence.

2.  Give the students freedom of choice in terms of reading material and writing topics.

3.  Teach the students grammar through intellectual osmosis because if students read and write enough they will naturally grasp grammar.

I know I learned lots of other things.  I read incredible young adult novels and learned about the value of journalling and how I shouldn’t use red pens.

Yes…I should never use red pens.

And then I went through student teaching and I quickly realized that the people who had been teaching me everything I needed to know about teaching weren’t always right.

Of course, this is student teaching I’m writing about which means that my connection with the students is temporary and they know it’s temporary which means that any connection we make is tenuous at best.  And I learned a lot about grading and how exhausting it is and how exhausting it is to be on my toes constantly in case something went wrong.

Eventually, student teaching ended and I went on to become a graduate teaching assistant and I was actually in a collegiate classroom and that’s when I really started learning.

Like why red pens are actually okay….because the color stands out against the black ink from the printers.

Or that freedom of choice really is a good thing in terms of writing but sometimes students need to be guided in terms of their reading selections.

And that playing games all the time is not always the best practices…no matter what the theorists say.

In my professors’ defense, it could be that I took things too far.  Oh well…that was twenty years ago and I have come a long way since then.

I have been teaching high schoolers since 2001, seniors since 2002.  And it never ceases to amaze me how much I don’t know about academics and how much I don’t know about being a teacher.

Like even if I don’t use a red pen, using one color on any paper will make the students feel discouraged so drawing pictures and funny doodles will help.

Or how even though the school board wants a hands-off policy, students like to be hugged because that tells them they are valued and loved.

Or how seniors who are at the top of the school and are brilliant and mature and are on the cusp of the adult world still want to play and be kids and be allowed to be kids because everyone wants them to be grown up and adult when they are just tired and over-whelmed.

My students were glad the time I clearly said, “I am not your friend.  I can’t be your friend.  Friends don’t grade each other.  Friends don’t write each other up [referrals].”  Some kids were offended that I wouldn’t call them my friends.  One girl, in particular, though thanked me that I understood the boundary that needed to exist between us and said that she wished her mother would be more like me.

Secretly:  I want to be my children’s friend.  But I can’t because of what that young woman taught me.

My students taught me that cell phones are not the devil’s toy and that just because they are walking out towards the parking lot doesn’t mean they are skipping.

They taught me the power of angry words when they broke down into tears because a different teacher had called them out in class or refused to listen to them when they were having a desperately bad day.

They reminded me that cruel words will resonate through the skin and ricochet off the bones until it breaks through the heart and shatters the person.  I did it at least once.  They have done it to me so many times.

I learned the power of a simple thank-you card, handmade, scrawled on a piece of paper with a cute doodle attached.

Or the reassuring arch of a smile on a bad day.

The power of not always asking, “What’s wrong?” and just going about the day’s schedule and the business at hand and doing the work that needed to be done so that normalcy is at least a temporary facade and the sadness is held at bay.

The power that comes from stopping what I’m doing and closing the computer screen or peeling my attention off the paper I’m grading or the book I’m reading and devoting my full attention to the student who  wants to show me something.  Because, even when you’re 18 and getting ready to go to college it’s still fun to do show-and-tell.

The joy and freedom that is gained when a teacher says, “Go for it!  Do what you want!” and let’s you experiment with your own thoughts and own creative methods and you go against the crowd and do your own thing and the result is a standing ovation and the surge of pride of something well done.

The peace of an almost-empty classroom when one or two students lag around after school and we chat about life, books, movies, what gives us joy, what causes us pain.

The importance of not talking when someone else needs to sob, vent, cry, scream, or talk.

The importance of saying “I understand” but only when I truly do understand and not always giving my story to show how I understand but letting those words speak for themselves.

The importance of saying “I don’t understand because I haven’t gone through your experiences” when I really have no idea what it’s like to be that child.  I have been blessed with a fairly easy life.  I do not know the agony of sexual assault/rape.  I do not know what it’s like to be the child of divorced parents, a single parent, an alcoholic parent, an abusive parent….any of that.  And just because I have read books about that doesn’t make me an expert.  The student who has gone through those experiences is….and I will listen and I will offer comfort and solace.  And, if needed or wanted, I’ll even offer advice.  But I won’t tell that person “I understand” because I don’t.

The importance of holding a hand or plaiting a lock of hair or touching a shoulder or making eye contact and smiling.  The importance of keeping my mouth shut and looking out of the corner of my eye at a person and letting them see that I know what they are thinking and that, in a way, I am thinking it too.236

The importance of not judging and just listening and understanding and respecting that we are different and will always be different which is good and wonderful because life full of clones is boring.

My students taught me that my class might be important to me but it’s not always important to them and that they do have lives outside the box of my classroom and that I need to be prepared to understand and respect that their lives don’t orbit around me and my curriculum.

My students proved that they are not standardized homo sapiens and that their edges bleed outside the cookie cutters being pressed down upon them and that they need to breathe and live and learn and express themselves in all the ways possible and ways that I didn’t even know existed.

My students taught me that I don’t have all the answers and sometimes my answers are wrong and sometimes their answers are right and sometimes it’s just good to sit back, shut up, and listen to them prove me wrong.

I’m good at being wrong.

Because when I’m wrong I’m able to learn.

By the way, I use all types of colors when I grade..not just red…

But I still use red pens.

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