They Don’t Care What You Know… Until They Know That You Care

I just found this piece in an e-mail to some close friends shortly after my first year teaching. Amazing how much of it still rings true:

“When I was a first year teacher, I worried up and down about my appearance. I was 23, fresh out of grad school, and to be honest, I didn’t look much older than I did at 18. What if my students thought I was too young? What if they didn’t think I was a teacher? How would I earn their respect? Would they riot? Would they think that because I was new I was a pushover?

So I spent hours and hours of time “playing the part” so that even if I didn’t feel the part, at least I looked it. My closet became cardigan central, I started wearing buns in my hair, pearls, high heels, the works… anything to look more grown up.

I not only looked like a teacher, but I made rules that teachers made. Rules about late work, about homework, about talking in class, I made punishment charts, etc., etc., etc., so that my classroom would flow smoothly. When asked how old I was, I told them that I was a bit younger than the dinosaurs and a bit older than they were.

And yet… even though I wore the perfect pencil skirt/oxford shirt/cardigan combo every day, had the scripted answers to all of the questions, and had all of these rules to back me up, it felt like I spent the majority of my first year yelling rather than teaching. I became this mean, evil person that I didn’t even know and I couldn’t understand it. Why weren’t they listening? I had the nametag. I had the rules. I certainly looked the part. And yet somehow, I wasn’t getting through to these kids.

The next year I switched jobs, thinking that it was the school and that I just needed to start over. And here we go again—what to wear, what to wear? This school even had dress down days because the kids were in uniform for the majority of the time, and they ended up being worse than normal days–how would I look like a teacher but still look like I was dressed down like everyone else?

Yet this time around, it felt a bit different. Don’t get me wrong—I still spent hours creating the perfect syllabus and perfecting my first day of school outfit, but then I also took time to tell terrible science jokes, I shared with the kids my irrational fear of flat worms, and I started singing in class (albeit however terribly).

One day after school I was freezing in my skirt, so I got changed into my sweats, and I was just planning on grading in my office before basketball practice later that afternoon. Then as I was walking down the junior hallway, the thought that I must look just like all the other students crossed my mind when I noticed one of my students standing there, and I thought, “Great, here we go.” He gave me a funny look, but then all of a sudden he recognized me, broke into a smile and said “Hey, Miss S!”

And that’s when it dawned on me: they don’t care. They don’t care how high my heels are or how thick my mascara is, or how stiff my collar is. In fact, they don’t care about the rules or the late work or my going-to-the-bathroom-in-class policy.

What they do care about though is whether or not I care. Am I going to give them a fair shot? Am I going to be there for them? Am I going to make them feel like part of the class?

The majority of the kids that I work with are 14 and 15 years old, and they are in many ways unfinished: most of them have just grown 6 inches on each limb over the summer and don’t quite know what to do with all of them, and they don’t know who they are yet—they’re still figuring it out by trying on everyone else’s personalities before settling into their own.

But though they may not quite have figured out who they are, or want to be yet, they certainly know when someone is being fake, and that ended up being my downfall last year; by trying to be the “perfect teacher,” I was taking out my own personal touch—instead of anecdotes, I had rules, and instead of an age, I just had a metaphor. No mutual caring and respect can develop from an environment as sterile as an operating room.

But this year, it seems that in revealing my own imperfections, I became more perfect in their eyes. By sharing the story of how I first broke my leg, and my favorite TV commercial, and why I think Rosalind Franklin is the best, I became more than just that woman that talks to them for 45 minutes each day, but I became a person. And it’s so much easier to relate to and respect a person that you can relate to and know, than a robot, for gaining respect from students isn’t about how you look, or even the rules—it’s about letting them see that you care, and that you have an interest in them.

So next year, I’m going to throw the cardigans out the window, if you will.

Hello! I’m Miss S, I’m 24 years old, I get SUPER excited about biology, and I am THRILLED to have you all in my class this year!”