Will They Like Me? Will They Learn From Me?

A new semester starts tomorrow.  It used to be that on of the eve of meeting students for the first time, each semester or school year, I couldn’t sleep, plagued by a singular thought, “Will they [my students] like me?”

So, let me begin by saying that I understand that this probably should not have been my primary concern ever.  Like parenting, teaching is hard work where invariably in order to help students grow the most, they won’t always like you.  I’ve always understood that my job is to be a guide and teacher and in the course of that, sometimes, you make tough decisions that students don’t agree with.  Plus, I worked with middle school students for too many years to think that them liking me was all about me.  People, in general, and adolescents, specifically, sometimes have issues and they sometimes just don’t like you, no matter who you are or what you do.

Still, knowing something intellectually isn’t the same as worrying about something emotionally, and I found myself regularly concerned about my likability among the students I worked with.  This concern showed clearly in my teaching and translated into a focus on the relational aspects of my practice.  Establishing strong relationships with my students became a hallmark of my teaching career. Many of these relationships have continued for years, some over a decade, through the wonders of modern technology.  My students have become friends, family (my daughters, who are legally adopted, were former students at my school), and colleagues and I truly treasure these relationships.

More recently a new form of the question has begun to keep me awake on the eve of a new semester, “Will they learn from me?” I don’t think that this question is actually a completely separate question from its prior iteration.  After all, students must, at least, respect a person in order to learn from them.  But, learning has an added layer of complexity when compared with likability.  Students have to feel that their teachers have something of genuine importance or relevance to contribute to their learning or their lives, in order to learn.  My students have to take the information presented to them, think about it, process it, transform it, and apply it to truly learn it.  That’s a pretty tall order.  Luckily, I’m really passionate about content area literacy so I feel like what I have to contribute is both valid and valuable, but I still find myself always wondering if my students will think so.

What’s been helpful is my own continued learning.  The other day, my yoga teacher shared this teaching from the Tao Te Ching:

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

Lao Tzu (c.604 – 531 B.C.)

Ever since then, I’ve been working on keeping present to this idea of doing my work then stepping back.  Part of my work will always be in the being of someone who students can learn from; part of it will be in conveying the content that I teach; and part of it will be in facilitating students learning from one another.   But another part of it will be in continuing to make teaching less about me and more about learning, stepping back and letting students move forward, take charge and apply their learnings to new situations around them.

And that gives me some measure of serenity as I enter into this new semester.

2 thoughts on “Will They Like Me? Will They Learn From Me?

  1. Pingback: Finding My Passion and Finding It Again | The Life and Times of an Assistant Professor

  2. Pingback: A Recipe for Giving and Receiving Feedback: Add a spoonful of sugar; Take with a grain of salt | The Life and Times of an Assistant Professor

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