Growing a Thick Skin

Today, I was working with one of my beloved classes (and by beloved, I mean truly loved), and they shared some interesting points with me.  Now, the following information is not intended to be whiny and poor me-ish.  If that’s the case, then I need to throw my shoe at myself.

They are really heavy and good for throwing.  I know where you are.

They are really heavy and good for throwing. I know where you are.

Apparently, last year when they were signing up for classes, they were advised by their classmates to drop my class if they got me.

Ouch.

Now, before the thousand reassurances start piling in, don’t worry.  I have grown a thicker skin.  Because, if I want to succeed as a teacher, I can not rely on my emotions to carry me through my convictions of “This is the grade you have earned” and not “This is the grade I want to give you.”  Those are two very different worlds and, no matter how much I love my students, I can’t give them grades to make them feel good about themselves because that is a sure-fire way to fail them in the real world.

Last year, I also learned that the work I was assigning was taking a ridiculous amount of time.  Therefore, I learned that I needed to lessen the work so that the students could succeed.  Now, before everyone thinks that I’m lowering the bar, no…it’s still pretty high.  However, I learned that worksheets I was assigning were taking the students HOURS to complete.  And this is work for students who are taking six other classes plus working plus doing after-school activities.

It’s amazing that, no matter how much society has made teaching and education into something scientific and formulaic, it is far from that.  Teaching is incredibly personal.  I teach what I love:  personal.  I teach students who are very individualistic:  personal.  The information that I teach becomes personally applicable: personal.  When I write comments on students’ papers, that information is used to help each person grow:  personal.  Furthermore, because I teach literature, I am encouraging students to look at information from an emotional and analytic level:  personal.

Therefore, it is not a surprise that students will take criticism, no matter how constructive I am intending to be, as personal.  Today, I reminded a student not to use “you” in her paper.  She immediately said, “Great, I’m in trouble again.”  This shocked me.  She had never been in trouble before.  She is a lovely young woman, but she mis-interpreted a piece of advice as an attack.

When I first started teaching, my emotional skin was so thin, it was transparent.  Everything I did was to better the students which left me so exhausted and drained that grading was ignored which created a bit of a problem when parents (rightfully) complained.  But, over the course of eighteen years, I have grown and changed.  And, with this, the glassy complexion of my emotional skin has become opaque and I have stopped taking everything so personally.

This is liberating.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Last year, I did not make the connections with my students that I enjoy making.  At least, not with all of them.  Last year was also the year that I had Steven who bought me my ticket for The Sound of Music (by the way, I was singing “My Favorite Things” in class today….Thank you, Steven).  Last year was the year I had Karina who brought me a strawberry-banana smoothie (yum).  Last year, I had a student who said that I truly helped him prepare for the collegiate world.

Over the course of two decades, I have learned how to recognize that I will not always be everyone’s ideal teacher.  I will give assignments that will frustrate people and will make decisions that will anger others (like not giving an extension because people used the time in class to do other class’s work as opposed to mine).  I will continue to have classes with whom I connect and others which are the sources of my “teacher-rosary:”  (Before class) Please God, help me get through this class; (and after class) Thank you, God, for helping me get through that class.

You think I’m exaggerating.  I’m not.

Today, I walked around a classroom and watched my students create a “World’s Fair” to demonstrate their analysis of Devil in the White City.  It didn’t go as perfectly as I envisioned.  But I tried.  And during this class, I turned on Vince Guarldi’s jazz music and played that in the background.  And the students and I discussed the 21st century ideals, morals, and ethics.  We discussed whether or not their world’s fair would profile/exhibit humanity’s inhumanity towards others.  Would we create the ideal utopia in which we do not document the harsh reality of the world or are we going to profile the beauty that exists?

I don’t know that the students heard that information.  I wish they had.  I think some of the things they did would have been much richer.

But, in the end, one beloved student told me about how he had been encouraged to switch out of my class.  And he didn’t.  And because he didn’t he was a member of an amazing class that has helped transform my teaching career.  And as he told me this, sure my emotions smarted just a tiny bit.  But I rubbed at my thickened emotional skin and listened to my students as they transitioned from what their peers said a year ago to their love of my class and the work they were doing.

So, the emotional smart softened into that warmth associated with love.

And it’s good that I can also look back and see the mistakes I made. Because teaching is rife with trials and errors.  But also experiments with glorious successes.  Like playing games that made a classroom filled with people who were scared of talking to one another into a community who share their opinions and are not afraid of judgment.

So, to the students from last year who told their peers to “drop [my] class,” thank you.  Thank you so much.  And, no, I am not being sarcastic or spiteful or nasty.  I am grateful for your criticism.  Because as much as you might have been looking out for your friends’ best interests, you also helped me to see what I needed to do to grow, evolve, and change.  The research that I have done this year is because of your actions last year.  And the research that I have done this year has yielded incredible experiences that will last me for the rest of my life and has changed my teaching career.

No harm.  No foul.

Only goodness…and a thicker skin.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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