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On the Assumption That I Am a Perfect Teacher

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle”
Philo of Alexandria

When I was dating the wonderful woman who is now my wife I came to what was a fairly profound (at least for me at the time) realization.

I realized that my response to the times she was upset with me should not be to say incredulously, “what’s going on?” or to be expasperated. I realized it does very little good to be defensive and annnoyed and instead that I should say, “okay, she is upset, what can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen again and what can I do to make sure we understand each other.” Thinking this way has often helped me avoid the bitterness that can sometimes attend the raw emotions that make up any marriage.

And I think this is a lesson that can be effectively applied to the classroom, even as the challanges of a classroom are much different than those of a marriage.

Every teacher knows those moments when his students become ornery, when they are upset and confused and when they let him know it. Every teacher knows those days when it seems like his whole class is on one singularly efficient wavelength of corporate angst. It’s frustrating, even infuriating at times. They seem to complain about everything. They aren’t grateful for all the work you put in. And they certainly don’t have any understanding of how valuable your instruction is. What’s with kids these days anyway!?

[I should quickly note here for the sake of my wife that what I describe in the previous paragraph does NOT describe her. She is neither full of angst nor ungrateful. Far from it, in fact. That, I suppose, is where the comparison breaks down…]

But what those kids do have is a soul. And a heart that beats and lungs that help them breath and emotions that can be raw and uncompromising at times. Even in their worst moments, even when it doesn’t seem possible, they are human. As my dad has said on occassion, kids are “individual souls with a lot going on in them”.

So I believe that it is the job of the teacher to step lightly, even when discipline is most necessary. Indeed, I don’t mean to say that teachers shouldn’t discipline or that they shouldn’t require much of their students. What I mean is that teachers should avoiding simply saying, “that student is upset and he is wrong to be upset and therefore he should be punished or ignored.” Just as my wife was upset for a reason, so each student who is upset is upset for a reason.

Some of those reasons are wrong and probably should be ignored. But, as their teacher, my duty is to avoid the assumption that they are wrong and that I am right. After all, as much as I hate to admit it, there is a strong chance that my students are upset because of something I did, some miscommunication or error on my part.

A good teacher, like a good husband, is willing to admit when he is wrong and when he has failed to communicate effectively with his students. At times, it’s easy to think so highly of our own authority that we become tyrants of our classrooms. And should we really be surprised if our students seek freedom and independence from a classroom ruled by a tyrant?

My goal in the coming months, as the school year draws to a close, is to teach humbly, to be mindful of the truth that I am not a perfect teacher.

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