Sunday, January 2, 2011

The tender heart of teaching

Well, it has been far too long since I've updated this for sure. I've certainly not been slacking; if anything, I've been learning more this year than I have in a long time. After 22 years of secondary level teaching (20 at the high school level, 2 at the middle school level) teaching (primarily) third and fourth grade is almost a complete career change. While I do have a sixth and seventh grade English language arts class (which I absolutely enjoy), I spend most of my day working with much younger students.

The biggest difference is in the day to day interaction with my students  (at both levels). One of the aspects I've developed over the years of working with high school students is a somewhat protective "shell" over my inner self, as have the students. Sincere glimpses into my inner life or that of my students at the high school level were rare; I mostly developed a rather facetious attitude in many ways, finding that a dose of flippancy was sufficient for many situations around that more vulnerable Self.

Not so with younger students. Elementary and most of my middle school students are much more open, much more honest, than my high school students were, and I am unable to fall back on my previous behaviors. I find myself opening myself up a bit more than I have in the past. An "I love having you as a teacher" at the high school level could be met with a "Yeah, yeah...thanks, but you still have to do your homework" or some other such remark (accompanied by a smile); the student would get the point that I appreciated the comment but I was still left somewhat "protected" as it were. With younger students, I find that a smile and thanks is far more appropriate; younger students tend to not pick up on some of the cues that older students are able to read.

I read The Book Thief with my middle school students recently. The end of the book is rather emotionally intense, and I have yet to make it through without some sort of visceral reaction. In previous readings with classes, I assign that section as homework then hold a completely academic discussion about the end, with a passing comment of "yeah, I cried" and leaving it at that. This year was different. The class opted to read the end together, and for the first time, students actually saw me experiencing a response to literature that extended beyond the typical pedantic English teacher response. It took some doing for me to do that as well as discussions with several of my colleagues, some of whom didn't understand my struggle...until placed into context of "oh're used to working with high school students."

This year is the year I've exposed my tender heart of teaching. It's been one of the most intense and scary years I've had since I began teaching, and in many, many ways, one of the most rewarding. And yet I can't help but wonder in retrospect if perhaps my students at the high school level would have been better served by my allowing myself to be a bit more vulnerable. As teachers, especially at the high school level, we spend a great deal of time discussing compassion, empathy, and connecting with literature and literary characters while failing to extrapolate those skills into relationships with human beings. We assume that the students will do that  on their own by default yet fail to realize that unless students are encouraged and even shown by example, they are unlikely to move in that direction. And so for many students, literature remains dead; nice stories, some better than others, but for many, what they read is likely forgotten shortly after they have finished reading it precisely because they have failed to bring it into their lives. I do it, we think, so of course they do, right? Not necessarily. Not unless we are able to risk bringing what we are teaching alive for them. As teachers, it behooves us to allow ourselves to be openly touched by literature and to allow others to see it touch us.

As I read the end of The Book Thief with my students, I could feel the eyes of virtually every student in the room on me, especially the boys, watching my reactions and my struggles with the more intense sections. For those keeping track, engagement was at an extreme high, and not just because of the story itself, but because I was allowing myself to be exposed, I was letting students see that literature can cause a reaction, and perhaps that it should. We later discussed my reactions; some students said they didn't feel anywhere the same level that I did; we discussed why and how readers connect with characters, we discussed the tools authors use to develop those relationships with readers. We discussed literature as a warm, living, art form rather than as a cold, dead thing on a metallic laboratory table ready for dissection. No mere lifeless frog, literature for us breathed and bled; it beckoned us in and came alive. It was one of the more rewarding discussions I've had in my years of teaching.

And so now I begin the second half of my first year as a 23 year veteran first year teacher. I am looking forward to the continued growth; I am looking forward to returning to the roots and essence of being a teacher.


  1. well, todd, as one of the students who sat in your high school classroom i'd venture to say that you might not have been as guarded as you think. granted, the interpersonal dynamics of dealing with substantially different age groups are going to impact not only your style of teaching but your style of interacting overall. and inevitably a high school student has advanced emotionally, beyond the level of any elementary or even middle school student, into some mildly adult version of themselves, resulting from some combination of their own experiences, fears, insecurities, successes, hopes, hurts, and any number of other influences. all of this making them as human and confused as the next guy. having been a teenager myself (lol) and surviving, by some miracle of epic proportions, into my thirties... i can pretty safely say that most of what we are, what we hope to be, what we wish to change, what we seek, what we thrive on, and what we strive for begins forming in the teenage years and let's face it, it doesn't change a whole heck of a lot. yes we change, yes we grow, yes we mature into slightly advanced and more controlled versions of our teenage selves... but i honestly think adolescence resembles adulthood far more than most care to admit. with that said, in teaching a group of miniature "adults" you are dealing with, in some stretch of the word, your peers. and dealing with your peers instantly puts you on a level playing field, wherein your emotions and defenses force you to look out for your "image"... because like i said, if an adolescent is a slightly spastic version of an adult then an adult is no more than a more experienced adolescent.
    (1 of 3)

  2. and all of that is just my long winded way of saying that i think that you were only as "guarded" as anyone else in the classroom and probably far, far less than many other adults/teachers who might not have shared your passion for the mission and/or literature at hand. i am perfectly aware that as your student i pushed harder than most, challenged more than is probably acceptable, and was fairly confident that i was right and you were wrong on a any number of things upon which we disagreed. i know i made your blood boil and i know i sort of got a kick out of that... i guess i'm adult enough now to apologize but i'm still not mature enough to agree. my point is, despite the challenges both emotionally and intellectually of dealing with teenagers, it is my honest opinion that you were fairly open, to whatever degree is/was appropriate, and that you were very skilled in the art of getting through to older students. and if nothing else, you were quite determined to make thinkers and writers out of us, whether we liked it or not.
    (2 of 3)

  3. this is not to say that your teaching a younger group of students now will not be as challenging, rewarding, or affective. i believe you will be as creative, as determined, and as down right stubborn with your younger students as you were with the older lot and that your students will benefit in every way. i think it is exciting for you to embark on new adventures, to find entirely new methods, and to accomplish undiscovered goals. it's a new adventure for you, a new chapter in your story, and new world to explore. i think you will continue to thrive on it... i just don't think it means you should have done anything differently in the last few chapters. you know how to teach your students now because you have good instincts and insights. you're not just figuring out something you didn't already know, have, or understand before. you taught your students well at a high school level with the same instincts and insights that allow you to make the many adjustments required to get through to a younger crowd.
    whatever, blah, blah, blah... i still love run on sentences, i still start too many sentences with and (and think thats the way they should be) and i think the dash should be standard punctuation - because it allows for what i feel is a conversational version of written language... :-P