So I’ve been talking about teachers and empathy and about the fact that despite all the blather from the cute cartoon figures at the bottom of the well, empathy is not always the best quality for teachers. In the subtly named post Empathy Sucks, I talk about how feeling your students’ sadness can limit your effectiveness by weakening you at the moment when they most need you to be strong.
In this post, though, I’d like to look at it from a different angle: how much do you really want to know about what your students are feeling? I’m happy this idea came along because I was looking for a way to talk about a little epiphany I had when working with visiting teenagers this past summer.
The summer program is where we go to atone for our 8 months of 12 weekly contact teaching hours at full time pay rates. It’s where we go to remind ourselves that there are worse classroom offences than a misplaced citation. Summer teaching is epic — in the rigour it demands, but also in the satisfaction it provides if things actually do go well.
The greatest difference, though is the balance of power. With my regular students, things are simple: they complete the tasks we give them, and they go on to U of T; they don’t, and they go home.
In the summer, on the other hand, the causal connections are a bit more tenuous. There are possible consequences for the summer students: if their behaviour is particularly egregious, they might conceivably not get a certificate, and a certain kind of parent might be displeased by this. However, we all know about teenage brains and their pre-frontal lobes*. All these things seem very far away when there’s wheelie chair jousting to be done.
In other words, there is no clear and consistent extrinsic motivation to meet classroom expectations. This can generate warm collaborative classrooms, where everyone — teacher and students alike –feels privileged to be present ,
but it can also lead to bad behaviour when students realize the consequences will be less severe than they would be in their regular schools. This can manifest itself in many ways: hyperactivity, open defiance, and perhaps the most deadly, sullen disregard. This last is less physically exhausting than the others, but it can be the most dispiriting. In fact on one occasion it triggered in me a kind of out of body experience.
Face to face with a particularly unimpressed young person, I felt my world tip slightly, and it was as if I were 15 again. As I saw her lip curve upward into a sneer, I became the young misfit, facing the careless disdain of a member of the cool kids’ group. I felt that for all my knowledge and experience, I had failed to learn the one thing that was most important, the secret signal that would earn me admission to the clubhouse (which back in the day had been a grubby university cafeteria across from the school — the socially elite drank coffee there when we mere mortals went to gym class).
But it wasn’t just that. After all, I might have been a nerd as a teenager, but I was never a happy nerd.
Think Winona Ryder at the beginning of Beetlejuice. I sat in class actively resisting knowledge. Any whimsical attempts to draw me out or make a lesson “fun” merely served to redouble my resentment.
I was cruelly derisive of any attempt on the part of the teachers to relate to us or seem young and current. The sneer appeared on my face as frequently as it did on my tormentors’.
So at that moment I was simultaneously the young victim of my supercilious adversary, and the adversary herself.
I knew that I would never endear myself to her, because I had been her.
There was a moment of horror. I felt trapped in knowledge that I could not gainsay, because it was hard wired into my own memories. I saw my teaching through my younger self’s eyes, and it was not pretty. I would have been an atrocious student in one of my classes. Somehow, through a mixture of genetics and happenstance, this awful student morphed into a reasonably good (no fishing expedition here) teacher,** but traces of the sullen teenager are still active within me — active enough to remind me of the times when teachers were the enemy, with no quarter given. I suppose there’s a lesson there about karma.
And then… it was ok. Somehow the tensions loosened. My Jungian*** journey had reached its goal, and we moved on. There was no heart-warming meeting of minds, but I found a kind of peace. In a way, I had slain the dragon: I had come face to face ( almost literally) with the conflict teaching stirred up within me.
After all, the dragon was something I had sensed all along. I guess that teaching often does involve a kind of suspension of disbelief, the ability to not notice the rolled eyes and fidgets, the kind of heedless pep that enables one to persuade a class of foreign-trained surgeons to engage in the cutting of jack-o-lanterns.****
It was only now that I was strong enough to acknowledge this hostility and face it head on.
And how did this inform my teaching practice? Did it make me more hesitant to employ creative teaching methods, now that I remembered how much I had resisted them? Actually, not really. My teaching persona had evolved in response to the feedback I was getting, even when I seemed oblivious. This was my way of being me in the classroom — and one incident was not going to change it.
It did make me more aware, though. I became aware of the degree of courage that this kind of teaching demanded of me. And I guess that’s a huge part of creativity *****
At the same time, I also found it easier to make my peace with those resistant students; to find space for them in the interactive classroom. I realized that it was not really about me — even if the students thought it was.
After that, though, I’m a little more cautious in my deployment of empathy. The student mind can be a fetid swamp of nightmares and monsters, and that’s on a good day. I will be a little bit more careful not to venture there uninvited.