Different Teachers

Katie was so poised.  She stood with perfect posture behind the podium.  Her demeanor was sweet and kind, and the respect the students felt towards her was palpable.  They quieted immediately at her first hint of starting class.  As she taught with gentle authority, her own interest in the topic intrinsically engaged the students.  She was alert and vibrant, but still calm.  She almost never moved from behind that podium, except maybe to write something on the board.  Her students listened attentively, actively responded to her questions, and took her words to heart.

I’m not her.  I learned a lot from Katie in the months when I student taught under her supervision, but we’re very different teachers.  I can’t stand still.  I move.  I pace.  I wander between the desks.  I write on the board frequently.  The only time I’m immobile in front of a class is when I sit on the stool I place next to the podium, but I never stay there for long.  Katie’s voice was one of quiet confidence, while I speak with a voice trained to be heard in the back row of the balcony.  She would laugh and crack jokes, but she was always so sweet and gentle even then.  I’m more sarcastic.  I banter.  Instead of praising Romeo and Juliet as a grand, sweeping love story, I make fun of the characters for behaving like stupid teenagers.  Students know that I care about them, but they also know I like to joke around.

I learned from her how to combine kindness and compassion with tough standards.  I learned that strict didn’t have to be mean.  I saw how students wanted a teacher who cared enough to push them, how they loved her for loving them.

It’s odd, how life comes full circle.  I student taught under Katie seven years ago, and now I’ve taken over her job as she moves on to bigger things.  She’s the teacher who left in the middle of the year to work for a university, the reason I’m employed in my new job.  After six years of travelling and teaching all across the country, her students are now mine.  I’m confident in my abilities, but filling her shoes is still an intimidating prospect.

And she’s not entirely gone, either.  There is one group of students that she has not passed on to me, despite her new job.  I’m not certified to teach that class, so she arranged to continue teaching them remotely.  Most of their work is online, but she comes in once or twice a month to work with them in person.  Yesterday I sat in the desk that used to be hers in the classroom that is now mine, and I watched her teach again.

Instead of the green, untested student teacher I had been seven years ago, I watched her now with the eyes of a veteran professional.  I watched the little details I would never have thought to notice before, the nuances of her eyes and voice.  I watched her composure, the way the students almost revered her in the attention they gave her.  Even the students that love me don’t treat me like that.

But then again, I’m not sure I’d want them to.

“We talk more with the new teacher than we did last semester,” I heard a girl comment later in the day, referring to the amount of general chatter I have to control during the period.  I’m sure it’s true.  I’m sure Katie would silence the class with a look.  But do you know what?  I kind of like the organized chaos of a slightly rowdy classroom (emphasis on slightly).  I like reining in the talkative kids and redirecting the focus on to the right topics of conversation.  I have a class that is naturally quiet and focused …and sometimes I’m not sure what to do with them.  It’s like pulling teeth to get them to talk at all!  I appreciate their attentive natures and well-behaved attitudes, but I honestly have more fun in a class full of squirrelly adolescents.

I know I have to ask the students to quiet down more often than my predecessor did.  At first the girl’s comment about talking more bothered me, like I was somehow failing to follow Katie’s footsteps correctly.  But, no.  That’s not it.  I’m just not her.  I am snarky and sarcastic.  I like to be active and on my feet.  I couldn’t exude the calming atmosphere she created if I tried.  That’s not me.  That’s OK.

I’ve done enough, seen enough, to know that I’m good at what I do.  Her strengths are not mine, but I have my own strengths to use instead.

We spend so much time in education classes talking about diverse learners.  We’re told to be mindful of the different ways different students learn, that what works for one student may not work for another, and we have to be flexible and adjust our lessons to fit the needs of the learners.  No one really talks about diverse teachers, though.  We’re as different from each other as our students are from their classmates.  Good teachers come with all kinds of personalities and nuances.  We all have our own methods and strategies that work for us individually.  And despite – or perhaps because – of these differences, we all have something to give towards the common goal of shaping the lives of our students.  It’s kind of awesome, when you think about it.

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3 thoughts on “Different Teachers

  1. I love this post! I have been a teacher for nearly 20 years and I still love the “squirrelly” adolescent. I also love the power of learning and observing from my colleagues as the most powerful faculty development experience there is. Your post confirms that there are many ways to teach and a good collegial/mentoring relationship allows a teacher to develop in his or her own skin. I think a healthy teaching environment is about listening, expression and learning together–within the constraints of a well-formed curriculum–of course. There is a great new book that I think all teens will love: Brian Storm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Dr. Daniel Siegel. It is about how the second twelve years of life are a time to develop specializations. Siegel suggests that the array of varied demands on our teenagers becomes extremely daunting. Siegel is a brain scientist, so his work is backed by his team at UCLA. It is the kind of book that teachers love to know about because it helps us to understand how students learn best.

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    • Katie was an amazing mentor. I think one of the best perks from all my moving during my career has been the opportunity to work with a wide range of colleagues, to see a variety of teachers in action, and learn from each one of them. I’ve certainly grown as a teacher just from all the exposure I’ve had to different teaching styles and environments. I wish more “professional development days” focused on coworkers learning from each other, rather than sitting in conferences that may or may not be relevant to our given situations.

      Thanks for the feedback, and for the book recommendation! I haven’t heard of that one, but I’ll definitely have to check it out sometime. It’s sounds right up my alley!

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  2. It’s great to learn from great people. It’s good to take from them what suits you, to see what works for you and what doesn’t. But in the end, you’ve got to walk your own path.

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