I can still picture clearly the rush of students during class change in my own eighth grade year, and the nervous feeling of invisibility that came with it. It’s a look I now recognize in my own middle school students’ faces, and an enduring and almost universal theme in young adult literature.
It was Mr. B’s last day. He had been a student teacher in our English class for the last few months. Besides the much-discussed problem of his incredibly strong coffee breath, we liked him quite a lot. He brought a fresh enthusiasm to the classroom and he seemed to genuinely like us. He had said good-bye in class earlier that day, telling us it had been a pleasure and honor to be our teacher, and he would miss us. We would miss him too.
In grade school--especially middle and high school--I didn’t feel particularly seen or known by my teachers. I wasn’t mistreated in any way, but I wasn’t understood either. In retrospect, this had a lot to do with the old school teaching style, which had teachers engaging mostly with “the whole class,” but inviting minimal participation from us. In this scenario, I rarely spoke up. I received grades on my work, but little to no feedback.
When Mr. B expressed his affection for our class, my middle school self didn’t know for sure if that included me, even though I had no reason to believe it didn’t. But later that day, in the hallway, he said something that changed my life.
The young student teacher had his jacket and shoulder bag on and seemed to be on his way out. I gave a smile and a wave, and he stopped and said, “Just a minute, Ariel.” I stood curiously by the orange lockers. “Listen, I’ve been meaning to tell you--your writing is really strong. I don’t know if you know that or not, but you could be a writer some day, if you want to. I just wanted you to hear that.”
Mr. B’s compliment undoubtedly contradicts the research on effective praise that focuses on specific behaviors not general evaluations; it wasn’t perfect pedagogy (he was a student teacher after all), but his brief words meant the world to me. This was the only time I remember hearing anything encouraging about my writing (anything al all, really) until many years later, and I never forgot it.
One sentence from a teacher can make a huge difference in the life of a student.
By contrast, one year in high school, a teacher said something to me that cut in a different direction, and which has also stuck with me. Throughout the year, she enjoyed joking with a classmate, who loved to argue with her, that this classmate would make a great lawyer.
One warm day at the end of the school year, when our work was done, our teacher said she said she would miss us next year and started making predictions about what she imagined each of us doing as adults. Of course she began with “the lawyer,” and she went on from there with fun and favorable careers for my classmates.
Students were enthused about this and begged her to make a prediction about them next. It did seem like fun, though the teacher in me today cringes big time just thinking about it.
I don’t remember if I asked her, “What about me?” or if she got around to me on her own. She looked perplexed for a moment and then she focused in. “Hmm... Ariel, I see you very happy with a big family,” she said. “And a bunch of kids following you around.” I don’t remember what happened next, but my face felt hot with a combination of disappointment and shame. It did not seem like she was purposely trying to crush my dreams, but her prediction wasn’t even in the ballpark of my dreams--I mean, there was no career at all in that picture, was there?!
Whether or not she intended this, what I heard was, “You will be a stay-at-home-mom.” And though there is nothing wrong with anyone, male or female, choosing to be a stay-at-home parent, this was not an empowering message to send to a female high school student. Of course, I could look at her prediction as a metaphor for my becoming a teacher, in which case it was kind of accurate. But that was not how I heard it, and how students hear us is what matters most in the classroom.
I told my mother about the incident, and she encouraged me to write a letter to my teacher explaining how I felt, which I did. My teacher wrote back, explaining that being a mother had been the most rewarding experience of her life (I don’t disagree with her). She didn’t mean any offense, and she had no doubt I could become a professional in whatever area I chose. I considered her explanation, but it just did not change how I felt--which was unseen, and in a way, delegitimized as a serious student.
I share these two stories for the chance they offer to think about the power of our words to students. What sentence will you say to a student--intentionally or not--that will stay with them for the rest of their lives? That might, for better or worse, reframe how they see themselves? How do we show students we see them?
Our relationships with students are a big part of their process of identity formation, and the power dynamic between teachers and students is not equal in that process, because we are already adults with much more fully formed identities. Our students influence and change us, for sure, but not to the extent that we represent, to them, the nature of the adult world. It’s a humbling reminder that every day we can change lives for the better, and sometimes all it takes is a few words.
The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.