Any halfway-decent teacher understands that knowing our students is essential for success in the classroom. Heck, most would agree that it’s the most important thing we can do.
Prior to this year, I saw my students, but I never saw them. I never looked beyond who was in front of me. Outwardly, my passion for teaching and learning shined, but subconsciously I remained detached from the personal lives of my students. I had empathy, but always accepted surface-level excuses that naturally rise to the top when there’s an underlying issue. Not doing homework? Consistently late? I would accept a lack of effort, forgetfulness, or laziness (whatever that word means), say that they needed to be better, ask more questions in class, or attend tutoring. I would rarely follow up. Sheepishly, I always sidestepped the tough, emotionally-charged questions that were, and are, always there.
This year I find myself saying things like, What’s really happening? Or, Why are you hurting? What’s bothering you? I want to listen. The result has been a lot of tears. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many students break down right in front of me. These have been tough conversations, but needed ones. They have brought us closer and created an intimacy that I’m appreciating more each day.
Looking back, I avoided asking these types of questions — and listening to confessions of pain and struggle — because I was utterly classroom- and performance-oriented. Outside of their knowledge of the Common Core Standards, I had no gauge for the individual in my room. With 120 students, how could I place emphasis on the individual? Efficiency and rigidness are inherently demanded from high school (math) teachers. While these two qualities serve the content well — optimizing the passing rate on some standardized exam or similar non-humanistic end — they work to divide student from teacher. They force us to assume that content doesn’t emerge from bodies. They force us to overlook the student who is crumbling under the pressure of being a parent to their younger brother.
A colleague asked me when I have time for these types of interactions with students. We are already expected to do so much and our curriculum is so dense, how could we possibly serve as pseudo-guidance counselors, too? Adding on, he thought that the humanities were where teachers and students looked inward and reflected. No disrespect to him, but his concerns were symptoms of No Time Disease. I mentioned that it’s not about having enough time…it’s that I now make time. In class, after-school, whatever. I now expect these conversations. They’re important to me because my kids need it — especially in math. I build in time to simply listen.
I get the weight that he was putting on content. Besides, its why my students and I were even brought together in the first place. We probably wouldn’t cross paths otherwise. But while my students and I are bound by mathematics, and use it to venture to the edge of knowledge together, our humanity dictates how we interact with it. There’s a sort of duality at play here and math is but only half the story. For my entire career, this was lost in the midst of the pressures to perform and digest content at alarming rates. Beyond replying to emails about homework late into the night, giving high-fives, or writing a recommendation letter, I never felt the need to invest my self into the social and emotional capital of my students. I never chose to join their struggle. Maybe it’s because I’m old and a parent, but it’s different now. I’m learning how to resist the expectation that content must supersede humanness. I’m learning how to play an active role in their personal lives.
I’d be remiss if I left out how stressful this has been for me. In a way, it’s been like turning on the light in a dark room. With a determination to learn and listen, an explosion of information is now available for me. But I can’t unhear things. They stay with me. They cause me to lose sleep. My efforts to truly see my students as more than just students, to better understand them, and to help them cope, have added yet another layer of complexity to the messiness that is teaching. And I thought that this job couldn’t get any harder.