I have a colleague who I’m fortunate enough to also call a friend. She’s a teacher in an urban high school filled with an amazing assortment of students from many cultures and socioeconomics. She teaches 10th and 11th grade newcomers in a sheltered English class. She was once an immigrant to the U.S. from Cameroon. She is beautiful, wise, remarkably caring.
We met nearly three years ago when I was asked to pop into her classroom to see what suggestions I could offer for teaching strategies. Looking back, I can’t believe we ever became friends – not because of her, but because of me. Although I hoped to appear humble and respectful, I know deep down I was judgmental. I may not have let it show, but I thought I was the better teacher.
Two weeks ago I once again found myself stepping back to watch her, and what I saw happening made me struggle not to cry. It wasn’t the evidence of student work hanging on walls around the room and its resemblance to the strategies I taught her that made my eyes well up. On the contrary, what I realized with an uncomfortable consciousness was that I have been wrong about something in my own teaching practice. I haven’t been spending enough time getting to know my students. She, on the other hand, knows her students. I mean, she knows her students in a way that I rarely see in other teachers, if ever.
I may occasionally come up with a good idea for a lesson or an activity, but this year in her class I realized that knowing my students was far, far more important than what I’d been taught to focus on in teacher prep. Oh sure, in my TESOL courses we watched a few videos, we covered a chapter about learning the cultures of our students, and we conducted interviews with international students. Since graduating, I’ve even facilitated workshops about the importance of cultural competency. But I’m certain I do not know my students the way she knows her students.
When I took my first few courses in TESOL I knew creating a safe place for my students was important, very important. It was the core of my personal teaching philosophy. However once I actually had my own classroom, it wasn’t long before I found that supervisors, directors, workshop trainers, and coaches seemed almost exclusively interested in one thing – performance data about my students.
Not only did that take a lot of the joy out of teaching for me, I put getting to know my students on the back burner of my priorities. I allowed myself to think I’d still somehow magically get to know my students through the act of teaching or through various activities that fall into a category teaching strategies called get-to-know-your-students. Little by little I completely forgot that students are first and foremost people who want to be seen and heard for who they are, not just what they know or what they can show you they can do on demand.
The following week, I was back in my friend’s classroom. I received hugs and a softly spoken, “Good morning, Miss.”, from several of the young women even though they had only seen me on a few occasions. Two or three young men came up to me at various times, and introduced themselves while uncertainly trying to make small talk in English. A few other students wanted help with the assignment, and I realized as I responded to them that they really didn’t need my help – what they appeared to want was affirmation. Mind you, I’m not a pushover for giving students answers, nor am I a pushover for answering the habitual, “Is this right?” (My habitual answer to that is, “Why do you think that’s the right answer?”) Despite my resistance, several more students crowded around, vying for my attention and echoing, “Miss. Miss. Is this right?” If I hadn’t know better I would say they knew perfectly well what the answers were, they just wanted me to feel needed. In the moment, it is more likely that they also have a great need to feel noticed, affirmed, heard, recognized.
Maybe it’s shallow to admit, but it feels good to be needed. Much of my current work leaves me wondering if what I do makes a difference to anyone or it if has any positive impact. In my friend’s classroom it feels good to know I still have something to give. Even if Especially if what I can give is really nothing more than my presence. For example, the young man who amidst a cacophony of rowdy voices suddenly decided he was going to read every page of his textbook aloud to me! Once he got started, it was clear he was not going to stop until forced by the end of class. It gave me a lot of joy to see how proud he was of being able to read to someone like me who had time to just listen. Another moment of pure joy occurred when I was able to give a book gift to a young woman student. And especially a few days later when she burst into the room and declared, “That is a great book!” And we continued to chat for a moment about how fun it would be to start a book club about the book.
I often noticed the attachment my friend’s students have to her, but until recently I did not fully appreciate that each and every time one of her students gives her a hug or calls her “Mom,” secretly I hope that one day I can be the teacher she is. I’ve lost count of the number of former students who still come to her room almost daily on one premise or another – “Can I use the hand lotion?” “Hi, Mom! How are you today?” “I miss you.” Hugs, shy smiles, sometimes with bowed heads, waiting for a kind or encouraging word despite the possibility of a scolding for being absent or a more gentle chiding for having one’s clothes on backward. But always quickly followed by her helping hand or explanation.
“Mom.” Definitely mothering, constantly teaching. And also teaching me.
The year is winding down and I’ve completed my visits to her classroom for the year. As I consider being 53 and whether teaching will remain part of my future, I’m grateful for having had someone model for me that nothing is more important than knowing who we are teaching.