My second week of Model School left a more humbling mark than the first…
At first, I was tempted to believe that my students were silent and obedient in class because I had somehow managed to nail the teacher look, voice, and stance right away, because I’d somehow managed to do most things right- if not to my own credit, then out of sheer luck. Another week in the classroom reminded me that the relationship between students and teachers is much more fragile and dynamic than the first few days of any class let on, especially in my present context.
During Model School, our students gradually got used to us. At first, I held exceptional sway over my students as a brand new, oddly dressed, American accent bearing teacher. The more the luster of my newness faded, the more concerted efforts I found myself making to capture the attention of my students. Once the placating effect of my unusual presence wore off, I was reminded, with lightning-strike suddenness and clarity, of the summer I spent teaching in San Francisco, of how baffled, confused, and frustrated my classes occasionally left me. I’ve been struck by the same, monumental yet obvious revelation here in Rwanda: that no matter how well prepared, well-meaning, or consistent you are, students are people whose minds you can’t read and whose inexplicable actions you can’t control. You can’t access their minds or rule their psychological workings.
Based on my brief and limited experience, teaching successfully has meant finding the tricky balance between catering to your students and refusing to do so, paying close attention to their behavior but choosing not to take it personally most of the time. Students seem unwittingly capable of perceiving the weaknesses, fears, and vulnerabilities of their teachers, maybe because they have it easy as audience members rather than performers. They notice when you depend on them to answer a little too desperately; when your enthusiasm lags, even just a little, theirs is soon to follow. When you show up worn down and more prepared for battle than for class, they sense this attitude and mirror it, too.
Learning to work with students rather than against them seems like a fast-paced version of learning to work with rather than against people in general. Upon first meeting someone, it’s easy to form judgments quickly and simply, of both positive and negative extremes. It takes time to revise false impressions, or grasp that they are true only some of the time. Even though teachers only spend a few hours with students in an academic environment, students are always humans too, not just receptacles of knowledge who express their complexity only outside of class. Perhaps in any context, but especially in the classroom, this complexity throws a daunting wrench into the act of teaching, which is predicated on some kind of predictability. We want our students to grasp complicated concepts but remain simple as they do so.
Just as with any individual, adult or otherwise, teachers seem to thrive when they choose see the best in their students even after they’ve been forced to confront the terrifying reality of their variability, even after they’ve accepted their multidimensionality within a one-dimensional, learning environment. When teachers see beauty and possibility in this depth and breadth, even if some of it is dark, pesky, obnoxious, and uncooperative, students seem much more willing to extend them the same courtesy. They seem more willing to respect you and meet you halfway when you show them you aren’t afraid of their full scope, when you choose to remember their strengths even as you reprimand them for wearing sunglasses in class, when they can rely on you not to oversimplify who they are out of personal convenience, or because you’ve taken personal offense at something they’ve said or done.
I was a student very recently, but I’m still just speculating. I was only one kind of student, and can only guess what my students are thinking and feeling (often unconsciously) as our lessons unfold. I can only say with somewhat greater certainty that teaching requires unflagging resilience and self-imposed optimism. A teacher who sinks after the slightest difficulty or mistake risks drowning themselves and antagonizing their students in the mire of their bitter, outwardly directed discontent. Perhaps, one plausible solution is to minimize your ego as a teacher, so that you don’t undermine yourself and push students away in a single fit of wounded pride.
As a teacher, you reap what you sow in many more ways than the content of your lessons alone. For those of us who tend to dwell on failure and veer towards pessimism in its wake, teaching constitutes a challenging but valuable opportunity to battle both tendencies under duress, not only as a means of self-preservation before students who catch you every move. If not for their own sake, teachers have to vanquish these demons for the students whom they’ll affect, even if their misbehavior or disinterest brings these demons on. You have to approach each day as a beautiful new beginning brimming with possibility to avoid dragging the relics of a less than stellar class from one day to the next. A teacher’s attitude seems to fill a room, seep into her students, and shape the course of the day. Since negative expectations seem capable of destroying the energy of a class, it’s incumbent upon you to act more optimistic than you feel, or choose to have positive expectations regardless of your misgivings.
Many people live this way, maybe without much effort. But for me, to approach each lesson and student with unwavering faith in their underlying goodness requires self-discipline and pre-meditated effort. Teaching, even briefly, has reminded me that it’s important and possible to be this way towards all circumstances and human beings, especially when they disappoint you or drive you crazy. Turns out teaching is good practice for living in harmony with regular adults, who are a little less innocent but equally worthy of receiving the benefit or your self-disciplined, optimistic doubt.