I think it is egotistical and foolish of a teacher to think that all the learning happens in one direction. My students are almost always younger than me but none of them are stupid. At a minimum they bring fresh eyes to stories that I have read hundreds of times. Frequently their insights and interpretations are surprising and unexpected and that makes reading the story brand new. Sometimes though it is the mirror that they hold up to me that makes me view my own life in unexpected ways.
English is one of the few classes students will take where they will be asked to be truly introspective. This is what I always loved about English but for many this is an uncomfortable spot. When you read you are asked to identify with characters, search within yourself for connections, wonder about your responses (both emotional and intellectual) and then ask why you responded that way. This thinking process can lead to conversations that cover a whole host of personal experiences. That is why my students and I connect – sometimes on a rather personal level. We talk about love, jealousy, loneliness, fears, anxiety, dreams, relationships, and connections to each other. My goal, as a teacher and a guide, is to create a comfortable environment in which they feel safe discussing these sometimes personal topics. Frequently this is done by me sharing my own stories.
Perhaps it is because I’m pregnant and emotional. Perhaps it is because of this stage in my life. Perhaps it is because I have more “adult” or “older” students than ever before, but this semester my students have really pushed me to do more self-reflection. They have made me reflect on everything from why my marriage works, to how I define myself as a woman, and it has been uncomfortable. It is easy to seem smart and wise when you automatically have time and experience on your side, but when that gap closes and you are faced with students who can think the big questions – well, I am no longer confident that I have the answers.
This semester we are reading “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck. It is a beautiful story about a 35 year old woman named Elisa living on a farm with her husband in California. I’ve read this story at least four times before selecting it for this semester, but this time the reading was much different. I KNOW Elisa – I understand Elisa because parts of her are also parts of me. As I stood in front of my classroom preparing to lead a discussion about this character I felt naked. I no longer knew how to talk about Elisa without also talking about myself and somehow the imaginary boundary line that I had always drawn in my mind was so much more difficult to see. Were we talking about Elisa’s fears and anxieties or mine? And unlike previous semesters my students knew that and I felt small, embarrassed and inadequate.
We all look back on our education and can identify the teachers that changed us, influenced us and help shape us into the people we are today. I can name every English teacher I have had since 9th grade. Each one has contributed to me being an educator and the style with which I teach. As a teacher I’m realizing that I will also have students that both shape me as an educator and influence who I am as a person. Students, who through no knowledge of their own, will change me.