Yesterday, I was talking to a group of incoming teachers. During our conversations, I heard a piece of advice given that I hadn’t heard since I was in school: Don’t let them see you smile until November. For newer teachers especially, we preach the strategy of showing no weakness. We talk about students “smelling your fear” as if they are raptors stalking you through a dark industrial kitchen. I’ve got issues with that. There is an option to present yourself as a teacher-robot, to rule your imagined kingdom with fear and cold distance, but I don’t think it is what’s best for kids or, frankly, healthy for teachers to hide the fact that they are people. I’ve been reaching out to teachers lately for stories of when they were most vulnerable in front of students, and the stories have proved to me over and over that classrooms work best when no one is asked to leave their humanity at the door. Richard Ognibene, a recent inductee into the Teacher Hall of Fame, had no trouble remembering the time he felt most vulnerable in his classroom, even though that day was more than 20 years ago. It was the last day before Thanksgiving break in 1994. Everyone was standing near the door, ready to leave for the long weekend, those kind of down moments where everyone’s ready to head home, guards are down, class is over. Rich was asking the students about their plans, and one student asked the same question in return. “David and I are going to my parents' house,” he answered. “Who’s David?” “The guy I’m dating,” and just like that, standing in front of a row of his students, Rich was out of the closet. He’d been thinking about doing it, but hadn’t planned to mention his partner until after the sentence had already come out. It was a moment of total vulnerability. “The students,” he remembered, “could really do some pretty shitty things if they were so inclined.” The worst-case scenarios of what could have been are terrifying and all too-easy to imagine. Even a mostly-ok response can be pretty crushing when you’ve put yourself out there to a group of people you are only mostly sure will accept you. Luckily, the students did what students often do in those situations. “Their kindness towards me was so moving,” he told me, “they were so gentle.”
The Humanity of the Work
And so it often is. Kids are our best people. Being open with them is often rewarded. Being vulnerable in front of them often leads to being embraced by them. I’ve had my big moments, moments of sharing trauma and mourning with students, moments that tear back the thin film we cover schools with to pretend that data can show the most important things we do. I’ve had small moments too. Those moments I start a class and let them know that my last hour was frustrating, that I may need a minute or two to get right, that I talk about my issues with anxiety or admit a lesson crashed and burned, and it was totally my fault. I’ve apologized, many times, for all the times I’ve come up short on being who I should be at the front of the room, and the great majority of the time I have been rewarded with students who feel more connected, more trusted, more willing to be vulnerable right back. What’s more, being vulnerable with students, allowing ourselves to be a real person in the room with them, opens up our teaching. Rich, looking back on his career, told me, “all the good things that have happened to me in teaching happened after I came out. You need to be authentic.”
We are not robots, our schools are not factories, much to the dismay of many. We are ridiculous humans with bad days and terrible tragedies. We have parts of us that we’ve hidden, hurting, and parts of ourselves we can’t even see in ourselves yet. If our classrooms are not places that allow and embrace and seek to understand those things, then our classrooms are not all that they can be. In his years, Rich has seen a lot. Even those hardest times in school, he says, can at least help to give us perspective. “In school, we fight about the copy machine, we fight about test scores, but then we get these reminders of the humanity of our work.” Our students should see us smile and cry and laugh. Our classrooms should be places that accept the most powerful parts of us.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He teaches writing and writes about teaching on his blog. His book, published by University of Minnesota Press, is called "IT WON’T BE EASY: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching."