Each fall, I question anew whether I know anything about teaching. At the beginning of my career teachers of my current experience offered instant, confident advice like, “Never acknowledge students who don’t raise their hands” and “Don’t open the door to familiarity because sooner or later you will have to give them bad grades” and “Remember, you’re not their friend. They have plenty of those.”
In the press of early year spontaneity and improvisation and terror, I violate those edicts within the first five minutes.
I’m not saying I should. Especially in September, my teaching lacks discipline. I gather students’ comments like different fruit from different branches, high and low in different trees, in different orchards. Students may wonder whether our discussions are all one subject. They must wonder whether I arrived with any plan at all. The sad truth, of course, is that I did.
Thinking about teaching over the last week or so, I’ve been trying to console myself over being out-of-shape and shambling. I’ve felt it necessary to boil my approach down to basic beliefs a new teacher might welcome. My search discovered nothing about hand-raising, allowing friendly conversation, or smiling before Thanksgiving. With me, philosophy always overwhelms practicality. I’ve arrived at three things I believe every student needs.
The first is respect. I don’t know how to gather respect without giving it. Students seem to respond best when I believe in their intelligence and earnestness. Respecting students who don’t complete assignments or who put energy into evasion instead of engagement isn’t easy, but most students want to justify your faith in them… if not now, then eventually. The respect I mean can’t be faked. It isn’t empty praise or indulging someone’s self-esteem. It tells students, “I know I can challenge you because you have the wherewithal to accomplish all I ask.” It says, at times, “I trust your abilities more than you do.” Education exposes all sorts of ignorance, including the students’ ignorance of their own potential. If not for teachers who saw more in me than I saw myself, I wouldn’t have developed as a student or human being. Though students occasionally flout my faith in them—they may even laugh at my naiveté and idealism—most want to be what I see.
Hope is next. The best sort of hope travels no set river. I’m skeptical of detailed rubrics that reveal exactly what an assignment demands of students—they don’t give students hope so much as marching instructions—but every student needs to see which way progress lies, even if it’s only a general “Over there, somewhere.” As with respect, belief matters more. Though every teacher has met students intolerant of frustration, the trick is defending frustration, presenting it as inevitable and the beginning of better results. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to say every student is capable of top-flight work, but every student ought to be capable of progress, and anything a teacher can do to establish the value of simple progress may inspire students. In any case, hope ought to be impossible to kill. Without expectation, a student’s life is tedious and robotic. Without hope, they must run in place.
Last is surprise. Not every sort of surprise is good. A capricious teacher throwing obstacles in a students’ way won’t gain many allies. Yet, if you can develop students’ appreciation of variation, you encourage more flexible and fearless people. An anxious class hung up on perfection balks at surprise. One accustomed to low-cost, regular, playful changes of pace and approach seems to welcome challenges more. They’re loosened up for trials, and, in combination with respect and hope, trust they will overcome them. I don’t always get far enough with my classes—some remain nervous all year—but know I’ll reach more students’ promise if I can convince them surprise is fun and ought to be comfortable. You can’t know everything before you get there. The best classes don’t want to.
Tomorrow when I walk into class to teach, I’ll try to believe, despite recent experience, I’ll improve. Truth is, I need just what my students do—unreasoning faith. Whatever happens, I’m sure some reward waits at the end of it, some revelation and growth. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll get it right.