Sunday, January 2, 2011
The tender heart of teaching
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 yeah...you'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.