I Like Teaching You

Today is the first day of the new semester.  I’m not exactly pumped.  I’ve been working all weekend to find a motivator, or an inspiration, or a visualization to turn to when I feel it’s all too much.  What’s my objective for the next fifteen weeks?  What mantra will I repeat to myself on the days when I’m wondering what it’s all for?

In mulling it over, I asked myself, “What have I done for my students lately that made me feel good?”

In December, as I was marking students’ final papers and writing feedback, I found myself, in a number of instances, appending the line “It was a pleasure having you in my class” to my comments.  A simple thing.  I wrote it only when it was true.  And each time, a little wash of warmth swept over me.

I need to remember to do this, I thought.  Whenever I’m writing final notes to students, I need to acknowledge the enjoyment those students have given me.

But why restrict it to final notes?  Could I make it a practice to ALWAYS say positive personal things to students when they occur to me?  Not just “What a great pair of boots!” or “You did a bang-up job on that paper,” but also “Your contributions really light up the classroom” and “Your friendly demeanour is going to open a lot of doors for you in your life.”

When I first began teaching, I saw each student/teacher relationship as an intimate connection.  Once I started teaching CEGEP, I burned out quickly; the emotional energy necessary for such a connection with every student was not sustainable.  Since then, I’ve been trying to find a balance, and I’ve erred on the side of being distant and chilly.  Perhaps it’s time to start working toward a middle ground, one where I can say, in myriad ways, “I like teaching you.”

Do you have a goal for the semester?  Did you have one for last semester?  How did it pan out?  I will keep you posted on how I do with this one, and on any consequences I observe.

Image by Richard Dudley

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26 responses

  1. “I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”

    John Steinbeck

    This is one of my favorite quotes on teachers and teaching. You have a great impact on the people around you, and building students up with positive feedback can change the world to a great degree. I would encourage you to see the positive aspect of every situation and person, and continue to build them up and brighten their lives. It means more to them than you may know. I believe positive feedback exponentially benefits academic results and a student’s self image! Keep up the good work! :)

  2. Man oh man does your post resonate with me. My teacher-malaise hits hard every August, those dog days of final glorious freedom—when I have the precious commodity of time to travel, to write, to read, to think, to be silent, to hang out, to exercise, but when I realize that, poof!, freedom is coming to an end. Before I know it, school starts again, and I face yet another group of students, mostly strangers, and the hard work begins anew.

    The older I get and the longer I teach, the deeper I have to dig to find the inspiration. But find it I do, somehow—and I think it’s crucial. If I don’t face my classes on that very first day with the sincere belief that every student is going with me on a journey of discovery and growth, the kids somehow know, and they won’t come with me. Teaching is more than a job—it’s a moral commitment—that’s what keeps me motivated.

    • ETC: “If I dont face my classes on that very first day with the sincere belief that every student is going with me on a journey of discovery and growth, the kids somehow know, and they wont come with me.”

      Totally. For a few years I walked in on the first day feeling wary and defensive, and it all went downhill from there. A belief that it will be a worthwhile journey goes a long way!

  3. I try hard to learn the students’ names, and on quizzes I try to make more personal responses that are positive and encouraging. But I agree, it is exhausting, and this semester I have 158 students spread over three classes. When I can, I try to attend recitals and concerts, complimenting students on their work the next class period. That goes a long way. But like you, sometimes I just feel burned out. Sometimes as teachers you give and give and forget that you need to give yourself a little TLC. Sounds like you could use a pedi and another Stephen King novel!

    • Jessica: I will never turn down a pedi and a good read, but an ounce of prevention goes a long way too. It’s tricky to set one’s own limits. I can’t give too much time to football games and concerts any more, but I can respond authentically in the moment to the positive feelings the students inspire in me. It takes so little, and sometimes it means so much! And I’ve gotten pretty good at saying “I need to go home and knit socks and watch Lost and not talk to anyone now.” In fact, here I go…

  4. Staying positive and praising the positive, not the disruptive, is something I continuously must remind myself of. I teach at an alternative HS in MI. We are a dwindling number, as the state test numbers pull the entire district down, and with belt tightening and the current attack on teachers, at least in MI, many feel a sense of malaise. Or at least a sense of foreboding as we don’t know what’s going to happen to our program.

    Giving positive feedback, teaching learning attack skills (sorely lacking in too many students), and developing relationships with each student – those are our goals and daily tasks.

    We teachers must remain vigilant for the crabby snappers, when misdirected frustration gets relayed to the students. They really can sense your mood and it can kill a great lesson or make a crappy one shine! :)

    I enjoy your posts. Sorry I don’t write as often as I’d like. Another new year’s goal yet to find flight.

    • TB: This is the first time I’ve heard the phrase “learning attack skills” – it’s a good one! Those are noble goals, and I agree; there are days when it’s hard not to direct our general malaise at the students, and it’s very, very important not to do that.

  5. With some students I find it easy to comment on what they are doing well, but others are more challenging. I make an effort to find something positive, specific and authentic to say to each one of them, but it’s taken practice for me to notice the small things that some students do well that are all but buried in their challenging behaviours.

    • Karen:
      I think one reason I avoid making random positive comments to students is that I feel it is somehow not “fair” – that if I say something nice to one person I have to be careful to do it for everyone. When you think about it, though – why should this be? I agree it’s important to try to find the good in everyone, but I’m going to try, this semester, to comment on the good everywhere I find it, even if I risk looking like I’m “playing favourites.” We’ll see how that goes…

      • It takes a lot of self-awareness to stand back emotionally and notice how we respond to a student — or a situation — and question our reactions. Those reactions/responses are our habits or our default positions, perhaps. I like and applaud your idea of trying something different even though it might be uncomfortable. I find it helpful to remind myself that I have choices, but I find it often takes courage to make a different choice.

        • Karen: There is a Buddhist maxim that takes many forms but basically comes down to “Do something different.” Stand on your head, juggle vegetables, sit quietly, but whatever you do, don’t do what you usually would. I try to practice it, but it’s crazy how hard it is!

  6. I have a folder where I’ve saved all of the papers that have really meaningful personal comments on them.

    I’m still working on my degree, and whenever I feel overwhelmed or start to wonder if I’m really cut out for all this, I open that folder up.

    Make those comments if you have them to say.

  7. I think that balance that a lot of teachers are seeking is the most fruitful place to teach from…finding a middle way within all the extremes of our day to day occurrences.
    Thanks for writing. I could find many positive anecdotes, but more excited to hear that you’re searching for those in your own teaching.

    • KD: yes, finding a middle way – and responding authentically moment by moment. I love the book Practical Wisdom (by Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe) for its promotion of this philosophy: it doesn’t help to create more rules for our behaviour; instead, we need to cultivate courage and experience to meet each moment to the best of our ability.

  8. I think teaching really runs into the issue of too many people assigned to one person. It’s not that you can’t teach a large amount of students at once and do fairly well, but at the same time, I think most inherently know that a large amount of students to one teacher is not the way to go. Graduate school classes are always smaller than undergraduate, and even Hollywood movies acknowledge this. What movie with a focus on developing of some kind of art (a martial art, writing, painting, etc.) has twenty-five, let alone a hundred students to one master? It just doesn’t fly: both for the story and how it would affect the learning going on.

    So it’s just a matter of making the most of it that you can. I’ve gotten past the point you had as well, of thinking I was supposed to be close with each student. It would be nice if you could, but there are too many of them, and there is no way you will click with each student. No matter how well you teach, there will be some that don’t relate with you (and you to them).

    You do what you can, then. Make time for conferences if you can, treat each student like a person and like they matter when you do get to talk to them in person, but don’t worry overly much if you don’t know each of them super well. It feels hard at times, but balance is needed if you are going to deal with any stressful situation.

    • Neal: yes, we can fantasize about how effective we’d be if our conditions were perfect, but in the end, we have to make the best of what we have. Trying to get students into my office individually is the one thing I try to do to make connections. It seems to work.

  9. Great thoughts and ideas from all of you. I deal with an even more negative side of education, which is in the discipline office at a large high school. You would be amazed how some kids have so little. I get frustrated when I feel they want to take, take, take, everything I can offer. But in the long run I know they appreciate it. I also get rather close to some students and their families. I am tough with discipline, but sometimes it is hard not to just feel sorry for these kids who have no one to really look out for them. And then we wonder why they are not focused to learn.

    • Shess: I truly admire anyone who works in a discipline office. We had a classroom management advisor here for many years, and she was a godsend; she has retired, and no one has really taken her place. She is sorely missed.

  10. Siobhan, your post–and the comments that follow–remind of one small incident from my school days. I had a sixth-grade teacher who was tough, and always seemed a little distant. At our final student-teacher meeting of the year she told me, “You are the kind of student that makes me choose to be a teacher.” I was in seventh heaven. She might have said the same thing to every one of her students. It didn’t matter; I held that to my heart for years. I never told anyone, but I did my very best, always, so that some other teacher might feel that way about me, even if I never heard such a thing again.
    Words are such powerful things, for good or bad. You never know when a small comment on a test paper might be the breakthrough for a borderline kid. Great post!

    • Anita:
      What a lovely story! And I agree, we never know how our words will affect people – whether positively or negatively – so we need to do our best and be authentic and see what happens.

  11. Back in High School, my writing style used to fly. That is until senior year, when I had a teacher with enough backbone to tell me that what I put forth wasn’t good enough. I was dumbfounded. We had these letters that we would write to other people in different classes, and we weren’t supposed to know who those other people were, so we all got nicknames so that they wouldn’t know who we were. We were trying to figure out just exactly who each other was. I got that name, and I asked why I got it and the teacher said “Because I think you give me crap. I know what your capable of, and you certainly aren’t doing that.” That is probably the most negative statement I’ve ever gotten from a teacher, but it certainly is the most driving force that hads gotten me thus far. I mean just this past week I got a “b” on a paper, if it weren’t for all the contractions I used it would’ve been an “A”. So being diminutive certainly does have an effect on students as long as you can build them right back up.

    That’s actually a strategy I use to teach the four year olds that I work with. Be super supportive and enthusiastic when they get something wrong, but don’t be afraid to be critical. Imagine a child as a hiking bridge at local park. When the supports on the bridge are rotted or corroded, do

    • You allow them to rot more, or do you fix it up? Do you allow the child’s base to rot? No, therefore you start by saying, “This is wrong, that is wrong, and that is wrong. Here’s what I see you putting out, here’s the best parts of that, and here is how I want you to do the other parts. Remember I’m not here to make you fail, I’m here to help you pass and get better. I really do enjoy having you as a student, and I want to really see you go, and do amazing things with your life. Maybe english won’t be what you teach, or it won’t be your best subject, but when you leave this class I want you to know that you certainly can make your best better, and that goes for all facets of your life.

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