Sunday, November 10, 2013

What do we learn from our students?

It's been a while--partly because of work, and partly because I just found out about the death two summers ago of one of my former students, tragically in the course of mourning the (more-recent) death of another former student.

I've been hesitant to write about him, but I haven't been able to write not about him either, so here goes:

Like many of my colleagues and friends, I went into teaching in large part to "make a difference" in the lives of young people.  And I have, but in some cases, I have to admit that the difference isn't necessarily the difference I intended to make.  This young man in particular started ninth grade as an angry, somewhat-alienated wannabe skate punk; I say "wannabe" because although he was an accomplished skater, he hadn't quite worked out the "punk" part besides just being angry a lot.  Something about him spoke to me: I wanted to be "that teacher" for him, the teacher who got what he was about, who saw what amazing, exciting gifts he had to offer, who helped him mediate between his anger and desires and the sometimes-irrational (and always irrational-seeming) system in which he lived and learned, who he'd talk about fondly as "the only reason I stayed in school".  But when I was done intervening, he had become an extremely angry, completely alienated fifteen-year-old on his way to dropping out of high school (which I believe he did two years later, shortly after moving to another city).  His final exam in my class was covered with obscenities.

I was "that teacher," all right.

I've gotten better about such interventions, and I share this "wisdom" so far as I can put it into words--although I think that the experiential way in which I learned is probably the only way to learn.

First and most important, I've learned that you can't make students trust you.  You can act to earn their trust, by being trustworthy in your actions, and by reminding them that you're there.  But all you can do is open the door.  To put in terms of my favorite joke:  it only takes one teacher to change the lightbulb, but it has to want to be changed.

On a more pragmatic front, there's a specific mistake I've decided not to make again: while I'm willing (indeed, in some sense, happy) to bust students with whom I've forged close relationships, I won't jeopardize those relationships by asking them to turn in their friends.  In fact, I've decided that that question--"who else was with you?"--is just not fair, unless it's literally a matter of life-and-death.  And in that case, I'd rather convince my student of the life-and-deathness of the situation rather than simply use my personal leverage to get the answer out of him.

Third (and my current or recent students might laugh at this), I've learned to use a lighter touch.  I'm not naturally subtle, and I've had to realize that anything I say -- in particular anything negative -- is effectively amplified many, many times (maybe I should call this the "multiplier affect"?).  Most of being "that teacher" is really about listening, and waiting, rather than talking.  And when talking, it's hard to underestimate the importance of being positive, positive, positive:  not untruthful, not unrealistic, but as relentlessly positive as possible given those two constraints.  Remember how insecure and terrified you were as a teenager?  That's what I'm talking about.

As teachers, much of what we teach is propositional--facts and ideas that can be put into words easily.  Much of the important stuff isn't so propositional--for example, how to approach a math problem, or ways to analyze a text--and arguably the most important stuff is the stuff we don't even think of as part of the curriculum.  (Ted Sizer's excellent book The Students are Watching is all about this last part.)  But when we think about "learning from students," I think we sometimes default to the propositional mode.  Sure, I'll never forget Dan's incredulity that I--who knew way more than he did about math--didn't know that hogs have to be walked.  And I learned a fact: that if you're raising hogs, you have to walk them.  But I also learned something much more important:  that students whose knowledge in one area is only a small subset of your own can be experts in areas about which you're totally ignorant.

I think the most important part of what I've learned from my students--slowly, painfully, extremely imperfectly--has to do with how to be more like the person I wish I could be when I'm teaching them.  And most of that's been learned the hard way.

For the record, after a couple of years of wandering in the desert--I'm reminded of Tolkien's line that "not all who wander are lost"--Constantine apparently found his way and what he was about.  Friends of his friends tell me that his last years were good ones, where his creativity and energy were valued and celebrated by the people around him.  I wish I'd been a part of that, of course, but even more, I wish I'd been able to see it for myself.  I'm sorry I couldn't be that teacher.