Once, many years ago, a former student of mine who had recently graduated came back to our high school to visit. He was someone whom I had taught for several years and with whom I maintained a relationship beyond high school, helping him make the transition to college. He stopped in, said hello, then spent the afternoon wandering through the building. Later when he returned to my room and we were getting ready to leave to have dinner together, I asked him who he saw on his tour of the school. He turned to me and said, “Who do you mean? Teachers or people?”
I laughed and pointed out the underlying meaning of that statement — that somehow teachers are not people. Ironic, I thought, because I, his former teacher, had indeed been a person to him — a mentor, a friend, a surrogate parent. And I know he believed that. He wasn’t referring to me in that statement but the other teachers with whom he had not connected in such a way.
But there is more in his statement than his personal experiences with teachers — many of whom did not treat him as a person either. I think that it is very difficult for many students to see their teachers as “people.” Elementary school children are often shocked when they see their teachers in a supermarket or doctor’s office or when they meet their teachers’ parents or children. I think that high school students are better able to see their teachers as people, but that often depends on whether it seems to the students as if the teacher sees them as people. There is definitely something about the institution of school and the structure of roles and relationships in the classroom that often make difficult for teachers and students to relate to one another as human beings with hopes, dreams, fears, insecurities, passions and a desire to be needed, appreciated, cared for, and loved.
What does it mean to teach as a person? What is the relationship between a teacher’s work and his/her inner life? I don’t think there is nearly enough written about this — the ways in which teaching touches a teacher’s heart, the ways in which teaching abhors a vacuum and will silently spread to fill all of the empty spaces in a teacher’s life, the ways it seeps into her dreams at night, the ways in which it connects to the unfulfilled promises of his own youth, the ways in which his emotions become so entangled with his students that he sometimes can’t tell the difference between what he is feeling and what he has absorbed from them.
There have been times in my life when I have had the most vivid and terrifying dreams about being in the classroom that I awake in the middle of the night gasping for breath. These dreams often occur in August — in the weeks before school opens for the new year —and there is a common theme: the inability to communicate and connect with the students. This dream has taken on many guises — sometimes it is pretty straight forward. I am in front of a class and I am talking but nothing is coming out of my mouth, or words are coming out of my mouth but they are going unheard by the students in the class as if I am speaking a language they do not understand. In another I have been ordered to the gym to “cover” a class and there are over 300 hundred students there and all kinds of apparatus and they are running and jumping and climbing and I am terrified that someone will get hurt and not only do they not hear me, but I slowly shrink and become smaller and smaller until I awake in terror right before I’m about to disappear completely.
In another dream, I am sitting on the back porch of the split level house I grew up in over 40 years ago. Right across from the semi suburban yard is an urban street with a line of red brick row houses and sitting on the front steps of several houses are dozens of my students. Physically, we are so close I can almost touch them. They are laughing and talking to each other oblivious to me until one looks across and notices me, sneers a little and makes a gesture with his hands as if he were cutting pages from a notebook. The words “paper snooze” are heard, the way words are sometimes “heard” in dreams — I don’t know who said them nor what they mean. I only know that they are a condemnation and dismissal of what I have to offer them.
Fears of disconnection, irrelevance, alienation and lack of control have permeated my dreams even after I had been teaching for over 30 years. Experience in teaching can only take you so far. Because each new class is full of new people and these new people have had unique experiences and of course no one can predict what will happen to/with the students in each class — who will get sick or injured, who will lose a parent, who will be thrown out of her house, who will get pregnant, who will fall in love, who will become depressed, who will try to hurt himself. And no one can know what will happen in the world and how those events will impact our lives — when students in a high school in Colorado will place bombs in hallways and enter the building with guns blaring — when a lone gunman will kill students and professors in a reign of terror on a bucolic college campus — when a black man’s beating at the hands of the LAPD will be caught on tape and the trial of those same policemen will end in a not guilty verdict by an all white jury, setting loose a fury of racial anger in the face of injustice that hadn’t been seen in a generation — when one of your students will become paralyzed by a stray bullet as he is sitting in front of his house with his sister because the city of Philadelphia is a violent and dangerous place — when airplanes will plow into skyscrapers and the Pentagon on a gorgeous fall day and you will sit in awed silence with your students and watch on tv as bodies fall and buildings crumple– when a space shuttle will blow up before your eyes while watching with your students what you all thought was going to a triumphant space mission with a teacher on board.
There is always the fear of failure lurking in every classroom and buried deep inside even the most outwardly confident teacher’s psyche. By failure I don’t mean the kind of failure that is often talked about in the media about school failure.. low test scores, poor attendance, high drop out rates… Not to minimize that kind of devastating and crippling failure, but it is important for policy makers and others who are not teachers to understand that the primary failure is the failure of teachers and students to connect as human beings in the classroom.
Sometimes teachers ( like all human beings) want to be liked and accepted so badly that we act in ways that are not necessarily in the best interest of ourselves nor our students — (for instance, not imposing rigorous standards, not assigning challenging work, not setting appropriate limits) for fear of being disliked. Sometimes teachers develop a cult of personality, making our classes so entertaining, so about ourselves and our own hungry egos that the students are seduced into thinking they are learning something important when in actuality they are being held captive by narcissists or ideologues.
Other times teachers find ourselves identifying so completely with a particular student’s situation that it is often hard to distinguish our own desires from theirs — a student whose parents are getting divorced at the same exact time in his life that your parents split up; a young woman who gets pregnant at the same time in her life that your girlfriend had an abortion you didn’t want her to have; a boy who has an talent for music ( like you) but who you think should travel with his band after college instead of going to college like his parents want him to do (like you did); the girl whose mother had a nervous breakdown ( like yours) during her senior year and starts to fear for her own sanity ( just like you); the boy whose mother threw him out of the house when she learned he was gay. At these times, we can find ourselves trying to help a particular student but really redressing unresolved issues from our own past. With such deep personal identification, it is hard for a teacher to know if he is truly acting in the students’ best interests.
While I am saddened and angered when I read news stories about teachers who have had romantic and sexual relationships with their students I am never shocked. Nor am I shocked (though equally saddened) by the countless teachers who have distanced themselves from their students and cannot or will not see their students the same way they view themselves or their own children. In the first case, the teachers lose (or never had) the ability to draw and respect boundaries. They become overwhelmed by their own emotions and ignore their moral and legal responsibility to respect the sanctity of their young charges’ souls. On the other extreme, teachers become so far removed from their students’ humanity that they objectify them – call them things like “these kids” or use animal ( “This school is a zoo”) or war (“I’m in the trenches”) metaphors to rationalize their failure to connect.
Being attuned to our inner lives and paying attention to our emotional needs and our dreams can help teachers grow as human beings and enable us to create rich, complex and challengingly real learning experiences for the students who are in our care.
When I started this entry, I wasn’t sure where it was going or how I was going to end it. I only knew that it was important not only to acknowledge but to name some of geographic formations on the topography of teachers’ inner lives. As I was writing, my thoughts turned to Maxine Greene ( as they often do whenever I think about what it means to be human). I remembered that yesterday, while cleaning out my office, I found an envelope filled with papers from a former student. This student was in my Drama class in 2005, a year in which we studied and performed Twilight Los Angeles by Anna Deavere Smith. He subsequently went to NYU and had the opportunity to study with Anna Deavere Smith in a freshman seminar about performance and identity. That year, knowing how much Smith’s work had influenced my teaching, he sent me all of the notes he took while in her class. At the time, I read through them, but not as carefully as I could have.
Yesterday I took the time to read the entire packet and inside I found a beautiful gift. It was a monologue that Smith had written and performed based on an interview with Maxine Greene. Those of you who have read my other blog entries, know what she means to me. The fact that these words came to me in the way that they did ( through a former student ) makes me believe in something bigger than myself and reminds me to remain ever vigilant to the power of generative connections and relationships between students and teachers — as people.
Maxine Greene on Wide Awakeness
You always have something determining you
That’s why I am so crazy about wide-awakeness
Sounds crazy maybe
The dialetically usually as understood
Like in Hegel and Marx
There’s this conflict and then it’s resolved and
But I don’t believe it is resolved
I think the tension is always there.
Like I, I think
Like it took me a long time to get over
Offereing to get coffee
For my colleagues
For my male colleagues
Or I feel like curtseying
When I see the president of the college.
Sometimes it sounds almost trivial
But I think about people in my generation who internalized a cetain view of women?
I’m still fighting it!
I’m still fighting it!
You never get over
Some of the bad parts about childhood
As well as the wonderful parts.
Wide awakeness means
Not being passive
The kind of thing art
I agree with Dewey who said
Mind should be thought of as a process
And not a container of ideas
I think that mind as a mode of being in the world
Lately I have been reading a lot about mind and memory?
And mind and imagination
And they all come together
As a mode of action
Mind is not a/
As one philos said
It is not a ghost in a machine
It is a way of acting in the world
And and then I think the way we release people to see more and feel more
Is wide awakeness
You have to
You have to enable our students
To name the world
To name what is happening
And I tell people
Just that idea of paying attention
And not losing touch with your perceptive self
or your imaginative self.
– From an interview of Maxine Greene by Anna Deavere Smith, July 2003 New York City