The Tangents

Dear Students,

I know what you’re doing.  It’s nothing new.  You think you’re distracting me, skillfully diverting the teacher’s attention away from the lesson and starting me on some tangential discussion.  You think you’re somehow “winning” because we didn’t get as far as I’d planned in the lesson.

An Empty Classroom by anime-girl963
(photo credit: anime-girl963)

I love it.  You think I haven’t seen this before?  I know who you are.  I know what to look for, when to indulge you, and when to steer us back on course.  Don’t you understand? I want nothing more than to engage these discussions, to embrace your questions, and to revel in the spontaneity of learning!

Yes, learning.  Believe it or not, this is when the “shaping lives” part of my job takes place.  This is when I can talk to you about things that are real and relevant to you right now.  Not that my planned lessons are irrelevant – they’re important for reasons you probably haven’t even considered.  But the tangents are important, too.  This is when you get to see me as a real person, as someone who might have something of relevance to say.  This is when I get to see your personalities and quirks, which actually helps me plan lessons down the road.  The better I know you, the better I can teach you.  Besides, you hold on to these tangents, even if you don’t realize it.

So we talk.  We discuss the differences between British and American English, an unnecessary offshoot of the discussion on why Shakespeare’s language is so hard to understand.  We talk about Christianity in non-Christian settings, which is something many of you haven’t had to face yet.  We commiserate over the possibilities of a weather-related school closing tomorrow, and I confide that I wouldn’t mind if that happened.  We talk about realistic career goals when you should be taking a vocab quiz.  Yes, these conversations stall class and delay the lessons, but sometimes, that’s OK.  Sometimes something bigger is happening than discussions on the character motivations of Hamlet.  It happens whether you see it or not.

I’m watching the clock.  I know what I need to cover by the end of the period.  Despite what you might think, I’m fully aware of what’s happening, and I’m letting it happen.  Because you’re thinking while we talk.  I can see the wheels turning in your brain, and it’s so much better than the blank stares I get from you other times in class.  You’re questioning the universe in the safety of my classroom, and I’m privileged to play a role in a crucial stage of your development.  And you think you’re just distracting the teacher… Ha!  If you only knew.  🙂

You see, I was you in high school.  I was a master at distracting the teacher.  I remember classmates whispering to me before class, “Hey, Christine! Can you talk to Miss McIntyre today so that we don’t have to do anything in class?”  And I would.  I would talk to her for 45 minutes straight, cutting her block period in half.  My classmates and I thought I was manipulating her.  Instead, I was forming a relationship with a mentor who would later offer me advice and guidance as I began my own teaching career.  (And, yes, I still learned a lot about history in her class, too).

You should be asking questions.  You should be engaging in conversations.  I’ll make sure we still spend enough time on the lesson.  It’s my job.  But I want you to learn more from me than verb conjugations and literary analysis.  The tangents are when that other learning happens.

Trust me.  You will know what you need to know by the end of the year.  I will teach you those character motivations and research techniques.  You will be a better scholar and intellectual by the time you leave my class.  And maybe, because of the tangents, you’ll also be a more developed person.  So let’s talk.
-Mrs. Roberson

107 thoughts on “The Tangents

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  1. Ah, memories. I used to do this all the time in one of my classes. It was an Irish class and rather than learn about the theme of a poem and the use of language in it, I’d divert and talk about anything else. The teacher always engaged, and always engaged the class. Virtually no topic was off limits. I really enjoyed those classes and I have nothing but the utmost respect for that teacher. Of all the teachers I had, I would consider her the joint-best teacher I’ve encountered.

    I actually changed into a different class during an academic year and all my classmates kept begging me to come back. Even the teacher admitted she had to change her lesson plans because they were getting so much work done in my absence. I’d had that teacher for 4 years before I switched classes and in those 4 years she always got the course covered, despite my interruptions. Allowing debate and active engagement of all the students in the class only served to enrich our learning. It was also a welcome break from the monotony of “learn, learn, test, learn, cram, homework, learn, learn” that the school day usually brought with it. In fact, it made the monotony more bearable and probably allowed us to take more from all our classes.


  2. Wow! I never knew that some teachers are actually aware of tangents in class. I guess I really do create bonds with teachers that go off tangents. They are the most memorable ones and they are the ones who have taught me many of the decent qualities that I possess today. I even remember many of the things they taught me. Mrs. Roberson, please never stop doing what you’re doing right now because it truly is an amazing feeling having a connection with your teacher. A teacher who understands what your going through is a teacher worth a billion dollars (maybe even more (: ) Anyway, this is my first time commenting on a blog in this website because I just signed up. Glad your blog was the first one I read. I’m really going to like this WordPress thing. Thanks for reading this. Bye!


  3. I love this and I agree 100%! It is even more fun going on tangents with my ESL students in Thailand! They don’t realize that they are practicing their English in the best way possible, real life conversation!!


  4. Well said Mrs. Roberson. I always grin when my grade 11 english class of boys think they steered the lesson of its course…if only they knew.


  5. I have the same thoughts. What could be taken as a negative misbehavior by most teachers, you turn into a positive. Perhaps that career advice guided a student to a happier life.


  6. As a college writing professor, I must echo these sentiments. So spot on!! The tangents are actually my favorite part of any given class session. And, like you, I was that student who could always get a teacher “off track,” and, like you, I too developed relationships with my teachers that continue to impact me today.


  7. It is fine when teacher is using his class to create discussions that are somehow helping kids to develop some skill or thought that is near the class subject.
    We had teachers that were talking us about their funny friends, and some irrelevant subjects, not as near as your stuff. Every teacher should try to create this kind of situations, I strongly support what you are doing.
    Keep it up.



  8. This is one of the best blog posts I have ever read. This is what we do, all day every day: deliver curriculum and shape lives.

    Another one of my favorite things to do: slyly suggest a topic that they will then use to get me “off track.” Let them think they thought of it. INCEPTION!!!


  9. I love what you wrote, made me feel nostalgic. aaahh.. memories… even I used to do the same thing.. I guess students are always the same… no matter where they belong 🙂 It was good to hear a teacher’s perspective about that time we got engage in those conversations that had nothing to do with our academics and everything to do in building our character and our real self… I thank all my teachers for doing that. Following your blog now… really like your writing style… take care


  10. My teacher in Geometry loves talking about anything. Actually he’s about to end up his biography talking to us perhaps this year! We always end up like 15 minutes before the end of the period. We love him and yes, we often get a lot of life values and inspirations from his past. By the way, I love your blog Mrs. Roberson!


  11. I used to love it when they tried this with me. Your writing describes these moments perfectly and I thank you for that. It reminds me of my teaching experience and how much I enjoyed it.


  12. Great post! I’ve always appreciated teachers who indulged my off-tangent questions I seriously ask out of interest. Some teachers do take time to give thoguhtful, in-depth and interesting answers. Many, however, say we’re out of time so the answers to my questions will have to wait for another day which never comes. Honestly, it embarrasses me and discourages future questions when this happens. Maybe, we were really out of time, what with the crappy curriculum in the public schools here in the Philippines. But now, I wonder if some of my teachers thought I was asking just to distract them. How do you teachers decide between genuine inteterst and diversionary tactics? 🙂


  13. Only after I finished my Bachelor’s and started gearing up for my Master’s degree did I understand what studying English really teaches us. Prompting us to analyze not only the literary texts in front of us, but life and all the wonderful ways it presents texts to us. Love this!


  14. Yes, I love this post! It is true, we as teachers know what you are doing students. It is these moments in class where everyone thinks they are a “winner”. The students think they are skipping “actual” work and the teacher finally has an engaged class. It is a victory for all. Sounds like the perfect class to me!


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