An obvious epiphany occurred early in my first year of teaching: I am not going to be the teacher I thought I was going to be.
The teacher I envisioned myself becoming never materialized. Over years, I had described, in countless conversations, this aspirational figure that I thought would break the teachers’ mold. Indeed, like Amy Poehler’s character in Mean Girls, I was going to be a “cool [teacher]”, not a “regular [teacher].”
I wanted to be friends with the kids; I wanted them to like my classroom.
“Kids, I like the Diamondbacks…I like Dutch Bros….I went to the football game on Friday….I watched the MTV Movie Awards last night….Facebook is for old people, Snapchat is where it’s at….I know what Fortnite is! I’m so cool, and I am just like you!”
“Wow,” they’d say, “Mr. King is the coolest!”
Now that I have their trust as a pseudo-peer, we can conquer issues of racism, sexism, and classism in To Kill A Mockingbird. They can digest this material better because we’re buddies, right?
I cannot point to an exact moment of my epiphany. Maybe, instead, it was gradual, but it did occur fairly early into the school year. I tightened the reins, enforced rules, held students accountable, and, in general, let go of the notion that I am “cool.” Rather, I focused on what my students needed. They required a competent subject matter expert. Students needed a cheerleader and, sometimes, a counselor. Teenagers want someone to quiet the chaos. Teaching students to respect the classroom, each other, and themselves became my new priority. If my strictness, rigor, and high expectations made me less “cool,” so be it.
At the end of the year, I was proud of my students’ scores on district tests and happy with how students performed in my class in general. I knew that I had prepared the majority of my students for their next year of English Language Arts. I may not have been the teacher I wanted to be, but I was the teacher my students needed.
I thought my own lesson ended there, but I am pleased to report there was more for me to learn.
The beginning of my second year brought a new wave down on me I really was not expecting. Student council was putting on a breakfast for teachers, and when I walked in a student from last year ran to me to give me a hug and inquired about what books I had read over the summer and told me what she read. In the first week back, I lost count of former students who came to my room to say hi to me. Two other teachers on campus messaged me to let me know multiple students wrote about me in preliminary writing assignments, discussing how helpful they found me. When I chaperoned the first dance, I was overwhelmed by how many students greeted me with smiles and high fives. The enthusiasm for seeing me was so sweet, and it warmed my heart. After 3 weeks, I continue to run into students from last year who are seemingly excited to say hello to me, and students yell, with emphatic waves and grins, across breezeways at me.
Teenagers seem to appreciate adults that care. They respect earnest guidance. Maybe that’s what makes me a “cool” teacher after all.
If you are a classroom teacher, how are you different now than before you entered the classroom? What things did you learn in your first years that took you by surprise?