This week, I finally got around to reading the NY Times Sunday Magazine’s yearly “College Issue,” which came out at the end of September. This year’s issue focuses on teaching, so I set it aside with the intention of reading it carefully when I could bear to think about teaching. I’m on sabbatical, so I’ve been trying to keep thoughts of teaching far from my mind.
The end is creeping up, though – I go back to work at the end of January – so the teaching thoughts are creeping in. While working on next semester’s course packs last Monday, I finally caved and read the first article, a piece by Mark Edmundson called “Geek Lessons: Why Good Teaching Will Never Be Fashionable.”
Edmundson’s take is summed up 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.