The Teacher We Are, The Student We Were

I was speaking at the School Library Journal Leadership Conference on Saturday when I accidentally stumbled upon an idea that was a real evolution of the stuff I think. (It’s one of the really good things about public speaking – especially when you only have an outline, not a ‘speech,’ talking about what you believe to different audiences can really cause you to examine what you actually believe – out loud and for an audience to see. But I digress.)

Much of the conference was focused on the need for the role of libraries to evolve, and I asked the following questions:

“How many of you were A and B students in school?”

And around 95% of the room raised their hands.

And I asked, “How many of you, when you were in school, really just wanted a quiet place to read books?”

And about 80% of the room raised their hands.

And I asked, “How many of you have built the library you wanted when you were a student… and who is excluded from your vision?”

And the room was quiet.

Now, I talk a lot about the need to unlearn, but I usually talk about it in terms of our own evolution as educators, but the more I think about it, the same holds true for thinking about our own evolution from before we became educators.

Most teachers I talked to were good at school, and I’d argue that much of the effort we undertake is to help kids be good at the same kind of classroom we loved the most. And while we want all kids to be good in that classroom, we have to ask ourselves — who do we accidentally value most in our classrooms?

When I started teaching, I hated silence in class discussions, so I called on the first person to raise their hand. And not shockingly, that was the kind of kid I was in class (when I liked the teacher.) It took me time to learn to appreciate the silence as more kids thought of something to say. It took me time to learn to let kids write out ideas before opening up class discussion. It took me time to discover ways to create a classroom that wasn’t just the classroom I wanted when I was in school.

It makes sense. Every teacher walks into their own classroom with the ghosts of the experiences s/he had as a student. And most folks, just by human nature, would want their classroom to be a place that the younger version of themselves would enjoy. That’s not a bad place to start, but it cannot be the end.

The teacher we are today is, without question, informed by the student we were. But we have to make sure that we create a vision of our classrooms — and our schools — that include all students in that vision, not just in ways to “make them fit,” but to create spaces where all students can find themselves and find success.

15 thoughts on “The Teacher We Are, The Student We Were

  1. These are great thoughts. I’ve always thought it is easy for us to teach those that are like us but so difficult to reach the ones that are not like we were.

    What you said about our biases getting in the way is powerful. We need all our students to be successful, not just the students that are a piece of cake to teach.

  2. I’ve had a vague dream for some time now about “certification switching” – math/science teachers swap classes with Humanities (foreign language teachers…I dunno). I know from speaking with teachers that we almost always teach our strong subjects, but that is detrimental to our weaker students. I would love to see how a math teacher would approach a novel and, of course, I think it would be really interesting to try and teach Algebra.

    You have problems with expertise (I never made it past Algebra II), but I think it would be really helpful for teachers and students.

    • I’ve often wondering about how an experiment like this would work– for us, and for our students. At the very least, teaming up for larger context could only help.

    • I’ll take it one step further. If we have to have national standards, here’s how we should create them – gather the best minds of each subject and then have them design the standards for a subject other than their own. As long as subject experts design the standards for their own subject, we’ll end up in the world of arcane knowledge. If really talented people have to ask themselves, “What is really important from the thing I *don’t* study,” I think we’d end up in a better place than we are now.

  3. The last person who should give advice on “school reform” is the person who was good at school! (See Sal Khan, et al.)

    Unlike you, I was a terrible student and school was torturous for me. I’m the teacher I didn’t wish to have. I did have a few brilliant teachers who saved my life and I’m still friends with them.

    Creating school experiences for the “losers” and invisible kids enriches everyone. Much empathy, insight and reflection is necessary.

    Btw: We undoubtedly overvalue being good at school. This may lead to an inflated sense of accomplishment, expertise and entitlement.

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  6. There are wonderful teachers working right now who were not “good at school”. Often times when they share this insight, I am moved by their commitment to make the school experience one that engaging, respectful, and intellectually challenging–something they never had or experienced. Despite the ghosts of our own student past, today’s teachers are pretty remarkable as they work to personalize learning for all students. As long as teachers remain steadfast in the mission that each student is known and valued, I think that students stand a pretty good chance of recalling their days in school as a positive experience.

  7. I was both good and bad at school. I responded to great teachers and rebelled against the merely good ones (all of whom I thought were terrible at the time). I dropped out of two different high schools. I read, I explored, I asked questions of experts (in all kinds of fields, like longshoremen, judges and nuclear physicists). I took charge of my own learning, but I had many guides, advisors, mentors and people who challenged my assumptions and who challenged me to learn and do more. I hope I am one of those people for my students.

    I try to be the librarian and teacher I was as a student, only in school more than I ever was as a student.

  8. While I agree that we are ghosts of who we were as youngsters we are also the opposite of what we once were too. I can tell you that as a student I was unremarkable. I spent my life being the middle of the road kid. I wasn’t bad but I was never really good either. Honestly, you would think that I was a middle child.
    In my room, however, I excel. There is hardly a student who forgets my name. Though I am not speaking out of hubris, I know that I have an increadible amount of influence in the lives of my students. I am proud to be a teacher every day of my life.
    I made myself in to what I never was: memorable. This is the gift that I want to give back to my students. I focus on the middle of the road, “unremarkable” kids like me because they are the ones who I most easily empathize with. Thank you for the tought provoking post though.

  9. Teachers have the passion for teaching. They want to educate the learners of tomorrow and instill in them to be lifelong learners. Every student has either a positive or negative memory of their teachers. I believe that when I see one of my students all grown up and approach me to say “hi”, I have made a goal come true. Teachers have goals for their students to be successful in life. When a teacher see for their own eyes that one of their goals has made their dreams come true that is an accomplishment for the teacher.

  10. We will always see students as we were when we were students. They will make us think of things we would do or say. Students make us feel needed and wanted. We remember our teachers as we think back, so our students, when they grow up, will think back as they were our students in our classes. Those are the most memorable moments a teacher could have to cherish.