Yesterday my daughter Cereta sat down next to me as I was writing and just started talking. “Teachers,” she said, “can’t just be teachers to their students. They have to be friends to them, too. Teachers who are too much into authority can cause their students to find them unrelatable and unapproachable.” Clearly she had a lot on her mind and heart so I engaged the conversation further. “Can you give me an example of an unapproachable teacher?” This was her impassioned response:
I’ll never forget the day she called somebody stupid. Ms. G called kids stupid in front of everybody on a regular basis if they didn’t know the answer to a question. She just talked at kids and never explained anything to them. She talked, not taught. Teaching is not just telling somebody something! That’s not learning! That’s not stimulating! I had a teacher once who told us that teaching is the student figuring it out. When you’re questioned, THAT’S how you learn — not by just being told stuff. Questioning causes you to think — that’s learning. In Ms. G’s class, unless you were just “smart” and got the info fast, she had no patience or time for you. I only went to her class because I had to go. It felt mandated. I didn’t enjoy her class AT ALL. It was boring. She was just miserable. It was just bad. She even insulted the class — I felt insulted, at least — when she attempted to teach the “stupid Black kids” by putting on a corny Hip-Hop song that she obviously knew nothing about. Uugghhh!
Cereta, seventeen years old and now a senior in high-school, was referring to a teacher and a class she had many years ago, yet just the thought of that teacher and that class bought out a visceral reaction. By this time in the conversation, I’d long stopped what I was initially working on to jot down what she was expressing. Her voice needed to be amplified There’s nothing like the perspective of a student talking about her experience in New York City schools to draw attention to what many students often experience, but never have a chance to say. I asked Cereta to share an example with me of an approachable teacher.
Her face lit up. “Oh, that’s easy — Ms. C! She was cool! She bought us donuts — fresh-baked one’s — just because! There were incentives in her class. She made reading enjoyable and interesting because she related the readings back to either her life or the students’ lives. She treated us as if we were her own kids. She was very emotional and let us know. when she was happy with us and when she was disappointed in us, too. She cared about us as people before she cared about us as students.”
What is your teaching litmus test result? Are you a Ms. G or a Ms. C? Are you approachable or miserable? Are we reflecting what we expect from our students while holding yourself to a different standard? Do your students feel cared for by you, or do they dread going to your class? As educators, we set the tone and the vibe in our classroom. Our students feed off of it and whether we believe it or not, we make a lasting impression in their lives — one way or another.