A few weeks ago, I accidentally found out a few of my students really hate my class. (I discovered some comments online—I know, rookie mistake.) They hate that “we talk about religion all the time” (we just finished a unit on World Religions in Humanities), and they found the video we watched on the Parthenon “super boring.” Each complainer had something else in common: a slew of unexcused absences. So, yeah, can you hate a class you don’t attend? This is the existential question of my school year.
It’s been a challenging year, teaching-wise. For the previous three years, I taught roughly the same group of kids. I had them as shy sophomores, struggled through their mini rebellions during junior year and felt proud as I watched them receive college acceptance letters as seniors. I watched a group of students grow up.
This year, I feel like my classroom is full of strangers. My students are all new kids, some of whom don’t laugh at my jokes and get mad when I make them analyze art.
I know I sometimes look at my not-so-distant teaching past with rose-colored glasses. I shouldn’t forget the student who showed up my second year of teaching in full Juggalo regalia, threatening to “take me out” for “talking shit.” Still, I pride myself on my ability to engage reluctant students. I’m a recovering reluctant learner myself. I spent my high school career skipping classes I deemed unimportant and interrupting the classes I liked. I remember feeling certain that my teachers were lying when they told me I would use the skills from their class in my future career.
They weren’t lying. Not only do I use the skills I managed to pick up in class, but sometimes when I’m stuck on how to teach a difficult text, or struggling to find a way to engage my students, I think back to how my best and favorite teachers taught. They are my models for my teaching career, and I wish I had paid more attention. But all I can do is channel those memories into some pretty good teaching practice.
Because, despite what some disgruntled teens may tell you, I am a good teacher. I’m not perfect—I make thousands of mistakes each school year, but I am good and, most importantly, I care. Outside of raising my daughter, this is the most important thing I will do with my life, so I care.
Every year, I rewrite curriculum so that we learn about the current events my students say they care about. I try to give my students opportunities to be active and creative learners. When we studied Rome, we made our classroom into a mini empire and tried to solve all the problems with monopoly money and soldiers using sweatshirts as capes. (Unfortunately, we didn’t solve much. Most of my students just ended up assassinating one another, which is at least true to history.) With a combination of success and failure, I’ve spent four years creating a positive learning environment for my 214 students.
I care, so it rattled me to discover the vitriol behind the comments from some of my students. How can they hate my class? Why aren’t they coming? Now, I’m not na´ve; I know that even my best students and favorite classes have complained about me, and that it will happen every year for the rest of my teaching career. But ignorance is bliss, and I’d certainly never seen student complaints written out on a public forum with such passion.
For a few weeks, it made me really paranoid. I started to see my students as my enemies, people to be corralled and controlled—because while you can’t control how a person feels, you can at least micromanage them in class. Alternately, I’d start to question my dedication to a rigorous curriculum. Maybe I should be less strict? Maybe I shouldn’t assign so much work?
Recently, a former student came to visit me. He graduated last year, and was excited to tell me all about his college classes and what he was learning in his new humanities class. Talking to former students as a peer is still a new experience for me, and it was fun to see him use what I’d taught him in a small way. My former student ended our conversation with a comment about how college is fun because he “finally cares about learning,” and I remembered something important: In high school, he was sometimes a mediocre student. He’d sleep through my class, goof off with his friends and forget to turn in work. I’m sure there were times he didn’t like me, and was vocal about it with his friends. But the worst thing I could have done would be to change my teaching style so that he would like me more.
Because I care, even when my students don’t realize it, even when they don’t like me, and even when they think the material is boring. While it is natural to seek approval, my job isn’t to be my students’ best friend; my job is to keep teaching. So, I keep trying, hoping that, someday, my students will see themselves as recovering reluctant learners who grew into intellectually curious adults. And I remind myself to not forget the great kids I currently teach who show up every day ready to learn. In high school, I thought kids like them were a little crazy, but now I’d be crazy to forget that they deserve a great teacher, too. Plus, they laugh at my jokes.