What My Students Have Taught Me

On Thursday right after school I had to rush the few miles to our regional high school for senior project presentations. I have been an evaluator for about ten years; it’s a task that I love and look forward to each time. I get to see how my alumni have grown, what interests they have pursued, and I get to talk with them again to find out what their plans are after graduation.

On my way home, I got thinking about some former students I saw there, and how far they have come, and then I began thinking about how far I have come in all the years of my career.  I have learned a lot from my students, and I’m a better person now because of it. Here’s my list.

Not to take myself so seriously – that I need to lighten up. In 1997, when I told my class that I was going to show them a video, they eagerly asked me to make sure I used one particular TV/VCR from the library, and while I didn’t understand their reasoning I decided to go along with their request. I popped the VHS tape into the player, and pushed “play.” The film started but then immediately stopped. I tried again, and again the video stopped. After several attempts I began to be frustrated, thinking, “OK, I know I’m smarter than this VCR but I do not understand what the problem is!” Perhaps I actually verbalized my thoughts, because the next thing I knew, the whole class erupted into laughter and one of the girls announced that Tyler had a watch that could control the VCR. I had been tricked! Some of the kids looked nervous once the whole story was revealed, but how could I possibly not laugh at such a brilliant joke! It actually felt good to allow myself to enjoy the moment, and after that I made a point to laugh at myself whenever it became necessary. (And as a middle school teacher, it has been necessary often! As long as I get enough sleep I’m OK with it.)

Some kids I’ve known have already had a much harder life than I could ever imagine, and yet they come to school every day and smile.  I sometimes remind myself that we never know what goes on at home for our students, and it’s important not to be judgmental. The most dramatic case involved a girl in my TAG who was actually removed from her home by the state and placed in foster care. I was very fond of this student, and happened to be there when the state arrived. It was dreadful and we were all in tears before the afternoon was over. What I had always admired about this young lady was how capable and goal-oriented she was, and still is. We remain great friends. She is certainly not the only student I’ve had who has had tough situations to deal with – there have been many, and those are just the ones I knew about: a young pregnancy; serious illnesses; domestic violence; poverty and hunger.  The young lady I mentioned here has a mom who loves her, and that matters. Keeping things calm and predictable in my classroom provides comfort and a feeling of safety that makes a difference for everyone.

To smile more. Even if I’m not grouchy, I know that my face sometimes LOOKS grouchy. I can’t attribute this realization to a specific student, but somewhere along the way I learned that while I’m all enthusiastic inside my head, the outside of my head doesn’t always reflect those feelings. As an introvert, I often retreat to my own inner space, and I don’t do it on purpose, but my external demeanor doesn’t always match what’s going on inside. At first I had to really work at remembering to smile, but over the years it became easier – after all the practice, I guess. After a while, smiling became more natural, and it makes me feel better, too!

If I try hard enough, I can find something to like in every student. In my school, the 7th and 8th graders are assigned to TAGs;  it’s our version of homeroom – it stands for Teacher Advisory Group and it’s designed to make sure that all students are well known to at least one adult in the building. It has happened more than once, that when I’ve received the list of my TAG students for the following year, there has been a name that made me cringe.  It really hasn’t happened very often, but when it does it gives me a feeling of dread. How am I ever going to get through next year with “that student” in my TAG?  And in every single instance, “that student” ended up being one of my very most favorites! The students I have had the hardest time liking, though, since I’m confessing all, have been those few students who either sabotage my lessons intentionally, or are otherwise mean and dishonest. But I try to let it go and continue to look for the goodness – and most of the time I have managed at least to like “that student” on a part time basis. I’ve also learned that liking my students is related to the next item on my list; it has been a long time since I’ve had to work at finding something to like in any of my kids.

Relationships matter. I learned this first in my fourth year of teaching, when I met Carina. That year was very difficult for me professionally; a divorce had rendered me an emotional wreck and though I tried to be a good teacher that year, I had no reserve energy. As a fairly new teacher, I had no collection of “stuff,” no files of materials to draw upon.  Carina and I had developed a good rapport, but she moved to Georgia at the end of the year and I found a job closer to home.  We corresponded for a while but the letters stopped when she got a little older; I knew she had outgrown me and so I didn’t worry, although I did wonder.  Then a letter arrived that knocked me off my feet.  It was a copy of Carina’s college essay, and it was all about me.  How I was a different kind of teacher, and how I had connected with her and made a difference for her.

Carina’s affirmation of me affected me deeply. How could I have made so much of an impact on someone in a year that was so awful for me personally? I thought about that a lot, and eventually I came to realize that so much of what we teach is not only what we teach.  Relationships really do matter.  Students must feel safe. Students must feel recognized. Students must feel that we are listening, and we do need to be listening. A friend of mine says there is a big difference between listening and waiting for your turn to talk.  I think many people, teachers included, do a lot of the latter, and not enough of the former. Carina taught me that as I listened to her, she learned more. She knew that she was important, and luckily for me, I learned that I had made a difference. We both grew through the joy of the teaching and the learning, and I still cherish my relationship with her.

Everyone wants to know what they do well, so that they can do it again. Pointing out the good things is a better way to teach than circling the mistakes. Again, I don’t have a specific example to pinpoint when I learned this, but over the years, I realized that students would smile and even glow a little bit when I pointed out things they did well. And I thought about how awful I used to feel when a paper was returned to me all marked up with red corrections and comments on what was wrong with my writing. I know I still have to point out mistakes, but I don’t  have to mark every single one, and I try to find something good in each paper that I read so that my students will have something good to hang onto.

You’re never too old to learn. I have to credit my son Geoff with putting a new spin on this lesson for me. Ever since I finished grad school, I have often proclaimed my love of being a student, and have jokingly said that I would love to just keep going to school even in my retirement. Geoff challenged me on this, and suggested that I could take classes. “What kind of class would you like to take?” he asked me. I thought for a moment and said I’d like to take a drawing class. Then a minute later I added another idea, and another, and another. There are several places in my area where community classes are offered, and there’s a college in my town as well as others nearby. I can take classes – and maybe I’ll even decide to offer one, too, someday.

As my retirement looms every closer – only twenty-something days now – I am learning a lot. About myself and what I will need to do to stay active and engaged. About the opportunities that still lie in front of me. And I have a bunch of great current students who continue to ask me to come back and teach them next year, too. They don’t think I’m old at all – or else they’re just too polite to say.

Thanks for reading.

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About harleywoman50

I retired from teaching in June 2011, and now am enjoying the good things I never had time to do before: traveling, writing, and creative arts. I also work as an educational consultant specializing in professional development for teachers; in this capacity I teach educators about their personalities using the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Instrument). I teach a course on how to differentiate instruction using type in the classroom, and several other workshops. Life is good.
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3 Responses to What My Students Have Taught Me

  1. Paul Hague says:

    Marilyn:

    I “retired” 8 years ago. Still going, and I won’t stop until I drop. I’ve had a number of transitions in my life, and they’ve all led to interesting changes. I agree about the kids – I try to find the good in each of them. It’s easier with some than others, but they’re all still developing and need our help and support.

    I enjoy reading your blog, and I hope you keep it up. 20 days?!

  2. billbirnbaum says:

    I enjoyed your story about Carina. Yes, relationships matter… a lot. About a year ago, Wendy and I traveled to the Peruvian Andes to visit the friends we’d made while working there voluntarily some two years earlier. We attended the high school graduation of three girls with whom Wendy worked. And we also attended a friend’s wedding. Our Peruvian friends refer to themselves as our Peruvian family. Yes, relationships do matter… a bunch. Bill

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