As Andrew (I will be using a pseudonym for the purposes of this reflection) walked into class Tuesday morning this week, he immediately called out, “Yo Mr. T! How you be?” He then proceeded to strut right up next to me, raise his arm, and attempted to give me a “cool” handshake like he does with all of his friends in the class. I stood motionless, held by an overwhelming confusion as to what to do next. Questions raced through my mind… Should I go for the handshake? Should I ignore it? Will Andrew still “like” me as a teacher if I don’t shake his hand? If I do go for the handshake, will I fall into the “friend trap” that so many young teachers find themselves in? What will the other students watching us think of me? Am I supposed to be a friend to these students? Are teachers ever supposed to be friends to their students? Am I supposed to be “cool” or “hip” or “young”? Or should I avoid these things, and concentrate on establishing myself as an old, rigid adult?
This is just one tiny example of the endless array of situations and internal dilemmas that I am constantly struggling with throughout my weeks as a student teacher. The sheer truth is that I am 22 years old. I am eight years older than my freshman students, and only four years older than my senior students. Yes, of course I have graduated from high school, and left my high school self in the past. Yes, of course I am nearly graduated from college, and already feel as if I’ve mostly progressed away from college life, and into a life extremely similar to that of an adult. Yes, American society does tend to label me an adult—mainly because of the fact that I am older than 18 years of age—and that is something my students cannot say. But in all honesty, how much does any of that really matter? When it comes down to it, I am still left utterly speechless by situations similar to the one between Andrew and I.
After multiple nights spent in frustration and anxiety over how I should be portraying myself to my students, I finally discovered some clarity. The SPU Principles of HOPE actually speak to this very issue! Principle “E3”, which states, “Teacher-candidates exemplify an understanding of professional responsibilities and policies,” discusses how student teachers must function with maturity and professionalism in the classroom. Simply put: even with an intern’s desires to make friends with his/her students and promote a communal, easy-going environment in the classroom, he/she must always keep the responsibilities of the profession in mind. After reading this, I quickly realized the significance of my internship was not on whether or not I could be a friend to my students. Rather, my duty is to serve them to the best of my ability as a teacher, and a teacher only. I must put aside my yearning to be liked and focus all my attention on being the best professional I can be.
Handshakes are fun. Nicknames are entertaining. Heck, even jokes or funny stories have their place. But these things do not make a person a good teacher. Reflecting on some of my favorite teachers, I recognize the fact that I enjoyed their classrooms not because they were “cool” or “hip,” but because they knew how to create organic, meaningful learning experiences for me. Yes of course they established an amazing rapport with me—some of the times even through nicknames and jokes—but the relationships created were used to better and more effectively teach me. They were always friendly, but never my friends. Yet, I never once for a second doubted their love and affection for me. They never gave me “cool” handshakes. Yet, I always knew they were super cool. In everything they did, they were professional. And I always respected and admired them for it.
In fact, it was precisely because they treated me with such maturity that I felt more appreciated as a growing thinker, learner, and student. I was never talked down to, nor did my favorite ever attempt to engage in conversation with me as if they were in high school. Far too often teachers patronize their students. With condescending remarks, a student feels belittled and insignificant. I never once doubted my abilities in the classrooms of my favorite teachers. But I can definitely remember classrooms of other teachers where I was constantly talked down to and treated like a kid. And guess what I became… a kid! I acted immaturely because I was treated like an immature child. I acted incompetent because I was treated as such. In retrospect, and at times during my adolescence, I know this was not the right behavior. I know that to become something you aren’t because you’re frustrated at your teacher is never a wise decision, but I could not help it. I loathed being treated in such a way. This relates heavily to SPU’s Principle “H5”, which says, “Teacher candidates honor student potential for roles in the greater society.” Those teachers that became my favorites were individuals who chose to treat me as an adult. They constantly reminded me of my important in the future of the future; they repeatedly pointed out the fact that the youth of the world are often the ones who change things; they always showed me just how much potential and power I had. And I loved them for it! Because of this encouragement, because of their belief in me, I consistently sought to be a better student. I worked tirelessly to outperform my peers and myself. Very truly, I became a better thinker, learner, and person.
We as teachers can never doubt our influence. With an air of professionalism and maturity, students will believe in themselves. When students believe in themselves, there is no telling how much success can be achieved. In the future, when confronted with situations like the one I described at the beginning of this reflection, I will seek to treat my students as if they were adults, not kids. I will avoid worrying about being liked. I will avoid worrying about being “cool.” I will instead strive to carry myself with professionalism and maturity. This will not only better my teaching, but also my students’ learning.