When You Are Uncool: Reprise

As promised, today I begin a Thursday series of posts from the archives – posts that have long since disappeared from view but that I still like.  New readers may be encountering them for the first time; if you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, maybe you’ll see something new in the post this time around.

The first is a slightly edited version of “When You Are Uncool,” a post that first appeared in December of 2008.  Some of the details of this post are no longer true – for example, my bra size has decreased considerably (yes, this is relevant; you’ll see.)  Nevertheless, the questions raised here still seem significant to me.  Should teachers aspire to be “cool”?  Is it possible to alienate students with one’s coolness or lack thereof?  Please give me your thoughts.

*

In September 2008, the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s yearly “College Issue” contained a piece by Mark Edmundson called “Geek Lessons: Why Good Teaching Will Never Be Fashionable.”  Edmundson summarizes his premise in a quote from the movie Almost Famous, out of the mouth of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, the real-life music journalist Lester Bangs: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you are uncool.”

According to Edmundson, good teachers are not cool. He lists off the ways teachers can be cool: “You emulate your students. You do what they do, but with a little bit of adult élan. You like what they like: listen to their tunes, immerse in their technology. …The most common way to become a hip teacher now … is to go wild for computers.”

A truly good teacher, Edmundson writes, is not like this – or, perhaps I can extrapolate, is not invested in being like this. “Good teachers see the world in alternate terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar.”

He describes a teacher entering the classroom through the window and asking students to define the word door. Another teacher takes his students outside so they can, with their bodies, create a kinetic scale model of the solar system, complete with orbiting and rotating. (I remember reading, in Lorrie Moore’s novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, about a similar class project in which one student, the narrator, was forgotten well into the night as she stood shivering outside the town library. She was Pluto.) “The good teacher is sometimes willing to be a little ridiculous: he wears red or green socks so a kid will always have an excuse to start a conversation with him; she bumbles with her purse to make her more maladroit kids feel at ease.”

The “Bangsian” professor, Edmundson acknowledges, is taking a risk. Students like cool teachers. They give them good evaluations. But according to Edmundson, “students don’t rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers. They rebel against eccentric, surprising teachers who take themselves too seriously.” The key, if you’re uncool, is to know it and be able to laugh at yourself, just like the fictionalized Lester Bangs.

Now, I’ve never been cool. I was deeply uncool as a child and young adolescent, was tormented and harassed for being uncool. In high school, I had plenty of friends, but I was also a lower-achieving version of Tracy Flick in Election, my hand always in the air and my smarty-pants mouth always running over with big words. I’ve always felt that everyone else knew some profound secret that I didn’t understand, a secret that allowed them to interact comfortably and unselfconsciously with others.

When I began teaching, I felt cool for the first time in my life. I was very young and acceptably good-looking, two qualities that immediately set a teacher on the road to cool. I also cared about my students, a lot, and cared even more about what they thought of me, so I wore clothes I thought they’d appreciate, did activities with them that I thought they’d like, and said “Yes” to almost everything they asked. I was an assistant teacher, so I wasn’t expected to discipline anyone – if students didn’t behave with me, they were removed from my class and returned to their regular teacher – so I rarely had to do anything that a child could construe as mean.

Students wanted to hang out with me on the playground, to hold my hand in the street, to share a room with me when we were on school trips. Never mind that these students were nine, ten and eleven years old and I was congratulating myself for being “cool” in their eyes.

I then began teaching at a high school, and my “coolness” was even more apparent and even more rewarding. I was barely out of high school myself. I was living in a small town where there were no young adults, all of them having left for the city to study or work. So I had no real friends. But to my students, I was cool.

I was an attractive twenty-year-old Anglophone (read: foreigner) who spoke French with a cute accent and had nothing better to do than chaperone school dances and go shopping in the city for slightly, but not threateningly, funky clothes. The boys wrote me love notes. Some of the girls, especially the “cool” ones, disliked me at first, but they came around when I was nice to them. When the Gulf War broke out and I drew a peace sign on my face with eyeliner every morning, the kids started doing it too. They wanted to be like me.

But I also went out of my way to be like them. I played games with them in the classroom, without ever asking myself what the pedagogical purpose of them was. I translated one student’s soap opera-style film script into English and spent all my free time, for the last two months of my time there, casting, directing and videotaping it. I went to volleyball games. I listened to French Canadian pop music. I watched Chambres en ville and Les filles de Caleb, the téléromans that they loved.

It wasn’t hard: I was a young person myself, and found these things enjoyable. I was almost effortlessly, almost naturally, popular.

It was intoxicating.

And then I started getting older.

The transition was a slow, and not a steady, one. I still loved my job, and my students, and that made me cool. When I was working in contexts where students were well-behaved and enthusiastic about what I was teaching, my own enthusiasm was enough to make me cool. I was, for many years, still young, and looked even younger. That was cool.

But I’m really not cool any longer.

I’m no longer good-looking by any teenager’s standard. The music most of them listen to is vapid and boring as far as I’m concerned. I’m not attracted to clothes that a seventeen-year-old would consider fashionable. I hate cell phones. Hate them. And, just as I used to say “Yes” to almost anything my students asked for, I now find myself saying “No” over, and over, and over.

It’s been very difficult for me to let go of the ego-trip, the sense of validation, that I got out of being “cool” all those years. I decided to become a teacher because of the feeling of self-worth that I got from being in the classroom. That feeling came from the way the students responded to me, a feeling I’d never had growing up. And as time went on, their responses changed. For a while, I thought that maybe my reasons for teaching were gone.

I’m no longer cool, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is that I haven’t resigned myself. I’m still looking for the kinds of responses I got when I was nineteen and twenty years old, and that’s just not going to happen.

What’s more, those responses had nothing to do with my students learning anything. I was validating my students just as they were, making them feel good about themselves by liking what they liked and never refusing them anything. But learning is not about being affirmed over and over. Learning is about being put in a position where you need to adapt and change.

I like Edmunson’s example of the red and green socks.

Most teachers I know spend time thinking about their clothes. When you’re standing up in front of rooms full of people all day, you can’t help but worry about your appearance. I know of teachers who safety-pin their flies closed every day, just in case. A colleague told me a while ago about female teachers who wear padded bras to avoid the problem of “nipplus erectus” in cold classrooms. (This option isn’t open to me: I wear a G-cup, and padding my bra would lead to a whole different set of fashion problems.) You don’t want to own too many sweaters that are similar, because then students will accuse you of wearing the same clothes all the time.

I mean, you don’t want to be laughed at. You take yourself seriously.

Even up to a few years ago, I got comments on evaluations along the lines of “I love the way miss dresses! It’s very special.” And I got comments like “One thing the teacher could improve: Her fashion sense.” I enjoyed comments like the former, and was baffled and hurt by comments like the latter. I still couldn’t grasp that I couldn’t please everyone all the time (even though I am, and always have been, well aware that my fashion sense is random and tenuous and sometimes just plain absent.)

Since reading Edmunson’s article, I’ve been musing about going in an entirely different direction.

I knit my own socks, often in hilarious colours. My hand-knit socks are not cool. Until now, it would never have occurred to me to wear a pair of my hand-knit socks in the classroom, unless they were well hidden inside boots.

But last night, as I finished up a thick pair in peony pink and sage green worsted, I held them up and had a vision of walking into the classroom in them, of a student saying, “Oh my God, miss, where did you get those socks?” And then we could have a conversation about sock knitting.

Sock knitting may be cool these days amongst hipster thirty-somethings, but to my students, believe me, sock knitting is not cool. It, and my pink-and-green socks, set me apart from them.

But we could talk about sock knitting, something this student would never have thought of doing, just like she would never have thought of wearing pink and green wool socks.

And even if she didn’t hear another word I said all class, she might go home and tell her sister or her father, “My teacher is a nutjob. You should have seen the socks she was wearing today. And then she told me she knit them herself. I mean, are you kidding me?”

And her vision of the world would have expanded to include people who knit, and wear, pink and green worsted wool socks.

People who, in other words, don’t take themselves very seriously.

I think Lester Bangs would approve.

Image by Riesma Pawestri

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22 responses

  1. Loved it. I aspire to be a teacher and didn’t know if I would be suitable for such a job. But I guess we never know till i reach there. Thank you. :)

  2. While I always found it fun when teachers made an effort to truly connect with his/her classmates, the teachers that always made the biggest impressions on me were the ones that were truly focused in challenging our minds and opening us to learning…Even if they did rely upon a bit of strictness or craziness to do so!

    • QOTR: the other side, for me, is teachers who tried to hard to be cool and be “friends” with their students – I always found it a bit sad when teachers seemed to be looking for my approval.

  3. I was a high school science teacher for six years. I didn’t start teaching until my late 20s, but I looked early 20s. Students definitely assumed I’d be the “cool teacher” and at first resented me because I wasn’t.

    I agree that teachers don’t need to be “cool” as defined by high school students. What’s great is there are different types of cool. And they don’t even know it, until you model it. The type of cool I taught my students was the authentic, self-accepting type of cool. I knew I would be perceived as weird, I knew I was going to mess up and not be right all the time. And that was ok. They need/respect adults who teach them its ok to be themselves, how ever that looks. And humans are messy. Imperfect. And definitely definitely I agree with you: Don’t take yourself too seriously! I love your idea of wearing the socks. But its not because you’re broadening their world by teaching them people knit socks. Its because you’re sharing with them who you really are, and modeling how beautiful it is just to be who you are.

    Oh…and…I also loved your post on the first day of school. I also agree that just because that feeling happens once doesn’t mean you need a career change. But for me, it happened every year. I knew I needed a change.

    I love your open honest blog! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Love this! I began teaching at 21 and was labeled “cool” simply because I looked like I was a high school student myself. I worked really hard to be taken seriously and to not be the “cool” young teacher fresh out of college, but I still had a lot of discipline issues that year simply because I was young and didn’t know how to assert my authority in the classroom effectively. Now, 6 years later, my students very rarely see me as “the young cool teacher” even though I haven’t aged much physically. I have built a reputation for being a strict, but fun teacher who prepares her students well for their AP English classes and for life. I think that is the perfect place for me to be right now. I know that one day this will change as I age and students perceive me differently, but I have hope that I can always maintain a good rapport with my students and teach them what they need to know.

    • TG: I have found that maintaining that rapport requires being true to oneself. I am no longer young – I’m older than some of my students’ parents – but I am also not “maternal,” so I’ve found myself settling most comfortably into a sort of “maiden aunt” role – a kind of spinster schoolmarm without the spinster. A lot of students seem to enjoy this. I don’t try to pretend that I understand their lives, but I am interested in them. It seems to work pretty well.

  5. As a young teacher, I thoroughly enjoyed this blog post! If you ever decide to teach Kindergarten, your “cool factor” will come back. They think everything is cool! :)

  6. As a once cool teacher (well, maybe I only thought I was cool), I can relate to this, except for the shopping part. Luckily, my wife buys me cool things, like a Star Wars T-shirts, socks with fun designs, and Hawaiian shirts.

  7. I love this post! I teach ESL and I prefer to take on teenage classrooms because I connect with them better, being 24. But you’ve made me think. Maybe it’s a little of an ego trip as I kow they think I’m “cool” with my tattoos, mouthy ways and exhuberant personality. I’m finding it a challenge to teach adults this semester, as they view me in a completely different way :)

    • Barbie: I had a similar transition when I was a grad student teaching undergrads – they didn’t think I was nearly as cool as the kids and teenagers I’d taught in the past. It was part of what made me start thinking about this topic. That said, I think we should use every tool we can to connect w/ our students, including our tattoos! The main thing is to be flexible and responsive no matter what the context.

  8. I had a number of exceptional teachers in high school and college. Not one of them could have been considered cool, but they were all well loved, precisely because they were so wonderfully eccentric. Its impossible not to appreciate when a teacher cares. It’s impossible not to love a teacher who loves teaching. Its impossible not to have fun when your teacher is having fun. It’s impossible not to respect a teacher who shows you respect. When you have these things, nothing else matters. The weird, crazy, quirky things, at that point, just become extra things to love about them. I personally can’t imagine that those superficial things make the slightest difference to anybody. When it comes down to it, can you honestly say that taste in music, or fashion sense, or material possessions, or physical appearance were qualities you wanted to see in a teacher?

    The most important things I learned from my teachers had nothing to do with any curriculum. They modeled characteristics that I came to value in myself and everyone around me, and all the more because they were human beings, with flaws and funny little quirks. They inspired and empowered me to become the person I wanted to be, instead of blindly following one impulse after another. I’m sure this has had a huge impact on my life, and the decisions I have made.

    Every lovable fictional character in existence has something quirky about them, and there’s a good reason for that.The qualities that make a great teacher are the same qualities that make a great human being and the things that make you human are the things people can relate to. You might be worried about what they think, but trust me, they’re being crippled by peer pressure and a human role model is just what they need. If you think your students are making superficial judgments about you, I can’t think of a better reason to show them just how awesome an uncool person can be.

    Kudos :)

  9. As a second year teacher, I loved your post. It is so refreshing to be reminded that the best teachers aren’t necessarily the “cool” ones. Interesting how the geeks wind up teachers because it feeds their need that didn’t get fulfilled in school. Long live the nerds and the naturally uncool. :-)

  10. Extremely interesting points. One of the first lessons I had to learn as a new teacher was to let go of the need to have all my students like me. I guess my question to you would be: where do you draw the line between taking somewhat of an interest in your students’ interests in order to make your lessons relevant and palpable to them, and adopting your students’ interests simply to be perceived as “cool”?

  11. This is great. I am already struggling with the ‘cool teacher’ thing. I don’t want to want to be the cool teacher, I always liked being a weirdo but it is hard not to conform to their expectations.
    Your entries are fantastic.

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