In the following adapted excerpt from my new book ‘Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers, I examine the importance of honestly reintroducing yourself to who you were as a student. In the spirit of true transparency, the unabridged chapter includes an unabashed list of my own memories of who I was as a tween. In this excerpt, I ask that teacher readers do the same reflection based on the current grade level in which they teach.
In Mary Poppins, the children outgrow the ability to speak the language of the birds. In Peter Pan, the children outgrow the ability to fly to Neverland. And when many teachers reach adulthood, they tend to forget what really preoccupies a child’s brain. But just think, if you could have access to a child’s thoughts, wouldn’t it give you some greater ability to teach that child better? Well, you do. By accessing your own memories you can reintroduce yourself to a student’s priorities, thoughts, and reactions. Because while times, they have a’changed, and students today might sometimes feel like they’re from an alien planet, the fact is that kids are a very recognizable species from generation to generation.
Reflect back to your own days in school—to your friends, your enemies, the times you were the most embarrassed, the times you were the most ashamed, and the times you were the most proud.
As a teacher of middle schoolers, I think back all the time to who I was in 7th and 8th grade.
I think back on my mistakes and my accomplishments, such as they were.
I think back on my biggest zit and my smallest bra.
I think back on the boys I liked and the girls I didn’t.
I think back on seeing my first joint being passed at a party.
I think back on the first time I heard Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”
Unpacking my memories, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the academics of school life did not rank too highly. Sure, I can remember an essay I was proud of or an answer I was praised for, but those memories did not have the impact of, say, my first trip to the mall sans parents.
In fact, if I’m really honest with myself, I have to admit that what I teach and my methods of teaching it could very easily conflict with what’s really important to a tween if I’m not aware of what really drives their train. I have to remind myself that if I’m not careful, and if I don’t very purposefully tap into what tweens naturally love, then my efforts may not rank as high as I would like them to on my students’ own mythic memory lists one day, just as they did not rank highly on my own list when I was their age.
We’re Better Teachers When We “Remember When”
I believe the strongest teachers are those who remember who they were as students. It’s a way to relate to those kids in your classroom that remind you of yourself long ago. It’s also a way to challenge yourself to relate to those who are least like you were, and forgive the discrepancies that come with those poor decisions that can result from just being young. There’s ample evidence that, during your school years, you’re programmed to make mistakes and do things you regret. But many of us as adults have blocked the memories out so entirely that we become less forgiving of students making those same mistakes. Looking back at who you were helps put in perspective those students that you have now and their inevitable stumbles.
Try developing your own list of memories sometime. Need help jarring your recall? I’ve developed a list of questions to help. See if you can answer these. By remembering what had the greatest impact on you when you were a student, I’m convinced you can become a better teacher.
Who Were You In School?
To help you in your own education reflection, here are some questions to get those brain juices going. Think about the grade you currently teach, and then look at the questions to reintroduce your current self to your past self.
1. Did you have a nickname?
2. What were the names of your 5 closest friends? Did you even have friends?
3. How did you choose to spend your lunch or recess?
4. What music were you listening to?
5. Did you play a sport?
6. Were you involved in an after-school activity?
7. At what age did you see alcohol or drugs for the first time?
8. What was the name of the person or persons that you liked more than as a friend?
9. What did you gossip about?
10. Had you ever passed notes in class?
11. Did you have a favorite teacher? What was his or her name? Why was that person your favorite?
12. Were you in a clique?
13. Were you a bully? A protector? A victim? A bystander?
14. How did you get to school?
15. What movies came out during that year?
16. Do you still own anything that you made at school during this particular grade?
17. Do you still have any friends that you’ve had since that year?
18. Did you have a favorite expression during this time?
19. Did you ever do something during those years that makes you wince?
20. Is there a direct line between who you were then and who you are now, or are there only faint traces of that student in the person you’ve become?
Remember, who we were as students may contribute to the people we are now, but it isn’t set in stone. Keep in mind that all kids of all ages are fully in the throes of a developmental process that guarantees they will make mistakes and bad decisions. A teacher, a great teacher, helps them learn from their missteps, shake off the guilt of having made them, and moves them ever closer to being the person they have the potential to be.