I’m Sort of Your Friend

JAILER_KEY_SETMy classes often ask, “How did we do?” but I avoid generalization. The moment I say, “These were great” or “These were worrisome,” the exception looks up at me, a student who climbed where others fell or one who stumbled where others waltzed. No collective judgment—this is my “good” class or my “bad” class—holds true for long, and, just when I think I have a feel for how a class operates, it surprises me.

And sometimes I only think I know. Once a ninth grade class railed endlessly against Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, but three years later two members of that class told me how much they loved the book, how our discussions stuck with them, how reluctant they’d been at the time to express their appreciation. Sometimes tests discover students who’ve quietly gathered criticisms as the rest of the class blew kisses at the author.

Generalization becomes even more complicated when you ask how a class feels about you.

I read somewhere that intimacy doesn’t scale up; that is, you shouldn’t expect to be affectionately understood by more than one person at a time. Teaching reinforces that lesson every day, for who reaches everyone? What teacher fully convinces all students a particular bit of knowledge, skill, or understanding is worth absorbing?

The ugly reality is some percentage of every class dislikes you. Their skepticism could be your problem or their problem or a function of your reputation or some chemical disruption that prevents either of you from understanding. Some students don’t like teachers period, and others only like a teacher as much as they liked their last grade.

Seeing the volatility of student affection gives you a ready justification for putting any question of “being liked” aside. Since you can’t win, you shouldn’t try. Concentrate instead on being demanding and fair and getting the most out of students, some say. Don’t smile until Thanksgiving. My high school yearbook included quotations under each faculty member’s picture, and, under the scowling photo of my junior math teacher was the line, “I am not your friend.” That statement was so accurate few of us dared bring our yearbooks to class.

Even my math teacher, however, must have sought affirmation. Perhaps she hoped we’d reassess our dislike years later, recognizing how much and how selflessly she’d taught us. Perhaps she survived on self-congratulation, assuring herself that, by eluding petty issues of affection, her class learned more.

Yet self-assurance of her type seems rare. I don’t know many colleagues who can will such ignorance. Who enjoys a hostile audience or stokes dislike when the fire dies? H. L. Mencken suggested no teacher should ever expect to be a regarded as more than a benevolent jailer, and maybe that’s so. But we have to work with these people. The math teacher who wasn’t my friend didn’t spur me to become a teacher. I haven’t learned to appreciate her these many years later. I liked the teachers who cared about me. Is it terrible to hope my students like me?

Which, admittedly, makes it easy to fall into pandering, coddling, compromising. Some teachers set themselves up as different from the tyrants. They bend at every challenge and not-so-secretly sneer at the school and education generally, setting themselves up as students’ only friend, the single exception to the hostility of school. Colleagues may discount them, but jealousy mixes with suspicion. Maybe when you have a student’s ear, you can accomplish so much more.

I try to tread a middle line, telling students how much I care about their progress (which is true) as I defend the demands I make of them. I also take myself out of the equation, saying, constantly, “When you realize you’re in school for you, every effort yields a 100% return.” Some of them roll their eyes—it’s impossible for them to see education as imposed and valuable, impossible to accept that, though my actions aren’t friendly, my intentions are.

Like it or not, the relationship with students is personal. When I was younger, students sometimes arrived asking, “What kind of mood are you in today?” I resolved to show a more regular face, to be more consistent, more professional. No one can avoid variability, but I wanted to be the same person every day, even if that person was only a version of me and not necessarily the person I’d be if we were truly friends. I wanted to be someone for them, to put who was helping whom in proper perspective.

Sometimes, at the end of the year, students will say, “I just didn’t want to disappoint you, Mr. Marshall,” and I’m sure they mean to compliment me. I’d be happier, however, if they said they didn’t want to disappoint themselves, that I’d been a friendly adversary, a goad to their progress and growth.


Filed under Ambition, Doubt, Education, Ego, Essays, High School Teaching, Hope, Identity, life, Meditations, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Work, Worry

2 responses to “I’m Sort of Your Friend

  1. Excellent piece. Being the best “liked” teacher is nice for the ego but not always for the students.

    • dmarshall58

      I think it must depend on the basis. I’m lucky to teach at a school where some students really embrace challenges and like challenging teachers. That would be a more complicated sequel to this post, one about the students you want most to impress. Thanks for visiting and commenting. I’m so sorry I’m so tardy in replying. –D

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