Whether you're in grad school in order to teach at the college level, or to gain certification for K-12 teaching, every program has a shared component- how to develop your teaching persona and philosophy. Invariably they ask you to think of teachers who inspired you, and why they did. For me, that was my hard ass AP English teacher in high school. I had a world history professor in college who was tiny, an expert on Japan, and hysterical. I had a teacher in high school who made sure I had lunch every day, and had me as his TA.
All were male, all were strict, mean even. I did well in their classes because they were smart, straight shooters, who didn't lie. But here's the problem with this approach- we're encouraged to name these teachers and the traits we admired as though we should mimic them. And these ignore the complicated structures of gender, class, and race, that inform how students will see us as teachers, and that inform how we see ourselves as teachers.
I admired my teachers' sarcastic, smart-ass approach. But in a female teacher, this is seen as countering maternal norms, judged more harshly than when this is seen in men. It runs counter to what students expect and can cause cognitive dissonance. The other issue is, what I really admired about my teachers was their smartness, how much they knew, how they could break it down for everyone, and that they were honest. For years as a teacher though, because I'd been told this was what I should do, I mimicked the form, and didn't think about the meat behind it. Beginning teachers are told to "fake it until you make it" and we're told a large part of that is mimicking or imitating the styles of those teachers we admired.
This last year, several factors led to a radical change in my teaching style.
The first was that because of various reasons, I started having panic attacks when teaching. They were anticipatory anxiety attacks- I imagined all the things that could go wrong, anticipated them happening, and then the attack would hit. This was traumatic for a lot of reasons. I struggled with fitting in in grad school, not feeling like my low class background wasn't a problem, but teaching, teaching was always easy for me. I loved it. I loved teaching other teachers. I loved designing curriculum, courses, interacting with and helping students. So the fact that my anxiety was only focused on teaching felt like a betrayal. My anxiety resulted in my taking medicine for a time. I also used to wear ties, button down shirts, and vests to teach in. My anxiety made this impossible.
So this was the environment I was functioning in when I returned to teaching high school last March. My school is 1500+ students. Mostly lower class. Mostly Chican@ and Native. And I just decided to drop all the nonsense. A student in one of my uni classes the semester before had complained about my sarcasm, so it was in the back of my mind to make some changes. The new job and new school was just the perfect opportunity. For the first time in 15 years, I dropped the teaching persona I've been educated and trained to have. And I was just me.
And it was great. I'm known with my students to be honest. Direct. But not uncaring. I teach them a variety of things- history and English, but also "life stuff." In part too, these changes occurred because classroom cultures and safe spaces have come to the forefront the last year, so I started thinking about what I could do in my high school and university classes to create these spaces. In my university classes, I've had several students, even ones that eventually dropped, tell me that my class was a safe space, that they felt comfortable in. For some, the first time they'd ever felt that way.
As I was reminded this week, part of this too has to do with letting go of ego. There was a conversation on social media a while ago about professors not wanting to police their classrooms, and how changing that perspective changes your class. Even with all the changes I've made in the last year about how I teach and interact with students, when a student emailed me over break to complain about a grade, and then tell me how I should be teaching and grading (even providing rubrics I should be using), I admit, my reflex was all ego. But because it is break, and I told students I'd be unavailable, I've let the email sit there, and I've thought about it.
Here are my conclusions. I did make an error. And when I respond, that is the first thing I'll say. The second thing is, while this student's tone, and correcting me rubs me the wrong way, I don't believe it's their intention. I believe that they are genuinely seeking help to improve, and so that is the vein I will take it in, and respond to. I'm not sure yet how to respond to the "these are the rubrics/grading you should be using." But again, this is ego. At first, I wasn't planning on responding to that part. Most professors I think would say that students don't get to dictate those things. But I am also toying with something along the lines of, I'm sorry that the rubrics, and grading, in this course are not easily accessible to you. I can only say that you will have a variety of courses, professors, and grading policies, that you will learn to navigate. If I can explain or help, please let me know.
Because here's the thing. Most students want help. Many students need it. Many don't get it. A student's classroom experience can vary wildly based on school, department, and professor's training. Changing my teaching, thinking about what helps students best, has made me think about, and prioritizing what I value in my own teaching.
With (hopefully) defense and graduation in the future, I've been thinking about this both through the lens of how to stay focused on what I think is important, and through the lens of recrafting my teaching philosophy. Here's what I came up with:
- As a first generation student, from a lower class background, in a single parent household, I am deeply committed to not only being transparent to my students about my background, but actively seeking to help them and provide them tools that will help them.
- While I think I'd be happy in a variety of positions, I think I would be happiest in a situation where I was serving these populations, and able to serve as a model and help for students like myself.
- While some of my uni students complain it's too simplistic, I believe in designing courses that provide low stakes practice activities aimed at filling in skill gaps and ultimately helping students succeed.
- I would rather believe the student who says they had an emergency and needs an extension than believe all students are liars.
- I would rather have students feel comfortable reaching out and talking to me than not.
- While it is more work for me, I believe in encouraging students to submit drafts and get more help.
- I believe in encouraging students to make choices in what they study, and the format they demonstrate mastery.
- I think that helping students, learn the content, learn to time manage, learn to prioritize work, is my primary goal. This means posting safe spaces banners in class, posting videos and flyers about mental health, and encouraging them to take care of themselves. While this may not be a tangible thing, I think these things better serve my students.
So for those of you who teach teachers, advise grad students, here is my suggestion- rather than encouraging them to mimic teachers or styles, to fake it until they make it, instead encourage them to think about what helps them as students. What do they appreciate as students? What do they best respond to? What types of things bug them? Hurt their feelings?
Mentor them to use that list to build the type of teacher they want to be.
I guarantee they'll be happier. And better teachers.