Most teenagers would agree that the job of teachers is to torture their students with memorizing boring content and stress them out by piling on homework and studying for tests.
Most teachers would say that their job is to maintain good classroom management and help their students become happy and successful individuals.
I like to approach my job as a teacher, however, as business people approach treating their clients (the customer is always right, how can I serve you?). I highly value what my students think about my classroom environment and the way I’m teaching them. That’s why I utilize my daily interactions with the young, brilliant minds in my classroom to learn things from them. And I’m not talking about by teaching me their vernacular (though…”that’s lit” too), or the latest dance moves (I once had students teach me how to Dougie in front of the rest of the class), or even the latest viral social media crazy. It often surprises my students when I tell them this, but truthfully they have taught me quite a few important life lessons throughout my years in the classroom.
Lesson #1: Give authenticity, get authenticity.
It took me three years as a teacher to open up and let my true personality shine through to my students. When I first started teaching, I was deathly afraid of exposing my genuine self, because I was afraid that once people found out I was gay it could have negative repercussions for my job. I was more scared of the parents and administration than my students, but I was with my students every day and they desperately tried to get to know me better. I had to dodge their attempts at personal questions by segueing back to the lesson and because of this probably came across to my students as cold and aloof.
Meanwhile, I actively tried to appear as though I was interested in their lives and their personal stories. I wanted them to share how they were feeling and what was going on outside of school, but if they asked me similar questions I replied with a typical and overly enthusiastic answer that masked my inner struggles. And, naturally, they could sense my fake exterior.
Finally, in my third year as a teacher I came to the realization that I wasn’t doing the best job of connecting with my students because I was creating an artificial barrier between us by hiding my personal identity. It took the first two years of experience and time for myself to mature in my role to understand that I was missing out on opportunities to be a role model for other students who faced similar struggles in their lives. So for these reasons, I made the decision to come out to my students. I started to let them know — in very subtle ways — that I was dating a guy (and not the female colleague next door, as they had thought — bless their hearts). In a not-so-subtle gesture, I even allowed students to finally follow me on Instagram and see the pictures of my weekend adventures traveling back and forth to spend time with my boyfriend.
But coming out was a small, authentic gesture on my part that opened up a world of new and amazing interactions with my students. They were not only overjoyed for me but I could visibly see the difference it made on some students faces — the faces of those students who probably were at odds with their own sexuality, because this topic is taboo in education. I noticed the immediate difference in not only how I felt interacting with my students — at ease and finally at peace with my inner and outer personalities — but also saw huge benefits in the relationships I formed with my students. The students now knew I was being genuine and that allowed them to feel at ease and genuine with me in return.
Lesson #2: Listen twice as much as you speak.
I used to think that my job was mostly about me being the all-knowing person in the room whom students should listen to. I controlled the lessons and crafted the message in my classroom, so that I could pass on my “wisdom” and my students could absorb everything they were to know in order to get a high grade in my class. Little did I know, as a fresh novice teacher, that this description is the makings of a terrible educator. My real job, I understand better now, is to get my students speaking, interacting and making sense of the world — both with my content and with each other. The less I speak, the more we all learn.
This is why my students always sit in groups, facing their partners, and every activity we do involves some sort of communication with their peers. It’s incredible what I learn by eavesdropping on these conversations. Whereas students don’t necessarily feel comfortable sharing everything about their lives or about their academic struggles with a teacher, they are usually willing to be open and honest with their peers. I’ve listened in on conversations about their home life struggles, how stupid they feel in my class (which is heartbreaking, but important to know), how they compliment each other, who has a crush on whom in my class (which is entertaining, and may or may not dictate future seating charts), and most importantly, I’ve overheard joy when everyone agrees on understanding a topic we’re learning.
Listening to my students has completely changed my classroom environment — students appreciate getting to know others in the class and having time to work through learning with them, instead of me. And I, in return, love what I get out of simply listening to my students.
Lesson #3: The smallest things make the biggest different.
As a teacher, you spend the first few years being so challenged by the workload of learning and planning lessons, trying to get to know students, attending many meetings and overall feeling lost in the frenetic pace of every school day that there isn’t much time for the little things. With time and experience, however, it becomes easier to slow things down and notice the little things that transpire in the classroom every day. I’ve learned that it’s never the lesson that students remember after they’ve left your class. What really matters, are the small details that teachers can infuse in their teaching.
For example, I try to greet every student by name every day and show them a smile, because it might be the first smile they’ve seen all day. I also make sure to personally welcome back every student whenever they miss a class and I have ready for them what they missed. I write myself notes when students tell me about things they’re involved in after school and on the weekends so I can follow up about those events tomorrow or next week. I also write myself notes whenever I see a student do something awesome and worth writing home to their parents about. I pay special attention to any student who looks like they’re having a bad day. Although I may not be able to help, I at least make an effort to go up and acknowledge that I see them.
I know these probably all seem obvious, but the reality is that every day it’s easy to take for granted these little things. When we ourselves are having a hard day the little things are the first courtesies to go out the window, because we think we need to focus on ourselves instead. In reality, I’ve found that by intentionally focusing on the little things every day, often times my mood and day will improve because students will return the favor. The same goes in the real world as well.
Lesson #4: People are always fighting a battle you can’t see.
I mentioned before about the students who look defeated before class even begins. Sometimes it’s exhaustion, sometimes it’s anger, sometimes it’s apathy. I used to assume only the latter and work really hard to coax students into participating with terrible extrinsic incentives (“You’re going to get a bad grade!” — worst thing a teacher can ever say by the say). Nowadays, I recognize that no matter how a student feels, I can’t assume the reason behind it. I can ask and try to help and maybe a student will share with me what’s going on, but offering to listen and be there for the student is the best way to be helpful.
I’ve found out after the student has left my class a myriad of sobering realities: that there was a death in the family, that the student just got kicked out of his home, that the student’s best friend committed suicide, that the student doesn’t sleep much because she works so late trying to make money for her family, or that the student just bombed a test the hour before mine. These are situations that no teenager should have to deal with, but the reality is that they do.
As I mentioned before, I tried to hide my own personal struggles too, but the reality is that I have bad days just like my students. If I comfort and support them through their downs, then I know they will do the same for me. This is why everyone should always remember that people are battling something not visible to anyone else on the exterior. Always remember this fact of human nature whenever you think someone is treating you poorly and it would be easy to lash out or seek revenge.
Lesson #5: Sharing personal stories benefits everyone.
This lesson is connected to #2, but also offers another life lesson. The more students share, the more diversity of thought in the room, the better for everyone. I’ll never forget the moments when students taught me about life, because they opened up and shared about their culture, their religion, their faith, their background, their home life, their political views, their talents, or their interests.
It’s so easy for everyone to isolate themselves in their own “likeness” bubbles of influence, only spending time with people who closely resemble themselves — both inside and out. I’m guilty of this I know. And the more I controlled the dialogue in my classroom, the more I realized I was stifling diversity of thought by only allowing my white, male, Midwestern, middle-class, gay, travel nerd, reality show addict voice to be heard.
Once I stopped talking so much, I started hearing all the other voices in the room and it was like hearing in surround sound instead of just one note. I just wanted to ask more questions and spend more class time sharing our personal experiences. And the most beautiful part of this is how many things not only I had in common with my students, but also how many things that students learned they had in common with each other. Sometimes students are even friends or have been in the same class for years and still learn new things about each other. And this, I believe, is the most beautiful part of being a teacher.
While some teachers like to dictate what happens in their class, I eagerly seek my students’ input every day, because they offer so much value to the learning. It’s not just for their peers, but so that I, the teacher, can learn too. My students have helped me grow not only as a teacher, but as a human being. And the lessons they’ve taught me have profoundly impacted my life as an adult. These lessons serve a great purpose across all humanity and I think matter to everyone in the real world.