Teach with the green light on

My first class of students, the Class of ‘96, is turning 41 this year. I taught many of them for all four years of high school. Though I blame Facebook for surfacing the worst in humanity and undermining our democracy, I love it for enabling me to keep up with the lives of my former students.

Recently, I had the following Facebook exchange with one of them:

Me: “Happy Birthday, David! Facebook messed up your account. It says you’re turning 41 and I’m pretty sure it’s meant to say 14!”

David replies: “Gosh I wish. And you’re still in your early 20s teaching me all the symbolism of that billboard with the eyes in great gatsby.”
I reply: “I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that you remember that.”

David replies with a screenshot of an image from The Great Gatsby, to which I reply: “Perfect. You get an A.”

What students see in their teachers

I love that David refers to my being in my 20s because it recalls another funny exchange we had. One night, ten years after he graduated from high school, he rang my apartment buzzer at 10 pm after an alumni basketball game. I came down to say hi. After a big hug, he looks closely at me and says, “When you were teaching us, you were like 40. But I’m looking at you now, and you’re like 40… So, how old were you when you started teaching us?”

“How old are you now?” I asked.

“27.”

“I was 26 when I started teaching you.”

“Oh shit!!”

What students feel in the classroom

Nel Noddings, in her book Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, notes, “The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter.” In the transactional relationship between teacher and students, it’s means something to me to know that one of my students, 30 years later, remembers something that I taught him and would take the time to share it with me.

Teaching is a transfer of information, yes, on one level. On another, it’s an unspoken contract between a teacher and a student: “I will care for you, and work to know you so that you can learn from me, and I from you.” Caring is the most important currency a teacher possesses. Far more important than grading. It’s what makes it safe for students to take the risk of learning.

If someone had told me, back in 1992, that in 30 years I’d spend enjoyable time scrolling through pictures of these students’ future dogs, kids, vacations, and meals would I have believed it? While I might not have been able to imagine it, I would have understood that the relationships that I was forging in the classroom were not isolated to that time and space. Unlike other transactions, the currency of caring has staying power. It is the ultimate green light.

Sometimes teaching is about unlearning.

The woman who founded the school where I first taught (back in the early 90s) held the philosophy that “the school should fit itself to the child.” Many of us have experienced what it feels like to have to fit yourself to the school — that seems the natural course of things. Three generations of women in my family attended the same high school and we all read the same books in 10th Grade. If you are a student whose voice, or sex, or race, or sexual/gender/cultural orientation, or religion aren’t visible, aren’t represented, in the faculty, curriculum, or co-curriculum, then you are forced to fit yourself to the school, and not the other way around.

But I didn’t know any of that when I started teaching, at least not in a conscious, intellectualized way. I was shaped by privilege and whiteness and that’s what I brought to my first teaching job. Our high school had 60 students and no racial majority. I was the only English teacher. The racist teacher narrative whispers insistently that some students care about doing well, and others don’t. I had noticed that my white students always revised their essays for a higher grade, just like I “told” them to, but my black students didn’t. “Why don’t they care about their grades,” I puzzled. Did they not like my class? Did their grades not matter to them? Do they not care about going to college?

That summer, I attended a subsidized boot camp for beginning teachers. For two weeks, I was on a boarding school campus with other newbies, more homework than one could imagine, incredible speakers, and a worship-inspiring mentor English teacher. One night, we were assigned a chapter from Lisa Delpit’s, Other People’s Children. One passage, in particular, turned me cold with horror. In it, Delpit describes how white middle-class children are raised with questions that are understood as demands, “Why don’t you take your bath now?” Where middle-class black children are raised with directives, “Get into the tub now.” White teachers, ignorant of familial cultural differences, assume their way is the only way, and this impedes their ability to deliver an equitable education to “other people’s children.”

I returned to school in September. A month into school, I returned the students’ first essays to them with comments that contained questions about their work, and directives about their next steps: “please revise this essay per the comments and turn it back in a week from today.” And lo and behold, everyone cared about their grades. I understood that I had fit the school to the child, finally, and I could see clearly the unlearning that I needed to do in myself to create a true learning environment for my students.