Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Laws of Conservation of Pain and Joy

Chris Wejr has a thought-provoking post entitled “Share Who You Are, Let People In”. I remember as a new teacher trying hard to look and sound older than I was, that I hardly ever shared my personal life with my students. I was afraid they would think of me as their friend, rather than their teacher, which I was warned about in my education classes. However, when I taught overseas, it became evident that I needed to reveal myself – my experiences, perspectives and biases – to my students to be able to build common understandings. My students' experiences were significantly different from my own and I knew I couldn't assume commonalities. I now realize how na├»ve my early teaching self was, thinking that even my American students' experiences were similar to my own.

Students are perceptive and know when you are having an off day. In my experience, when mutual trust and respect is built between the teacher and students, the students will be sympathetic on those few days that you are not on top of your game. I remember when I received word that my grandmother had passed away, I didn't have the words to express it to my students without breaking down, but they sensed my emotions and helped me see that it is okay to be vulnerable in the classroom. It allowed them to be more vulnerable too. I remember that day as one of reverence and deep conversation, in a classroom that was typically filled with activity and noise. I appreciated the intuitiveness of those students.

At the same time, students need to see your real self – the one that also has to do “homework” and chores, just like them. As I've been working on my dissertation, I've shared my struggles with writing and thinking with my students, to help them see that their own homework struggles are not unusual. They were looking forward to the day they could call me “Doctor Who”(they thought that was a better title than my real one). I've also realized that students like stories – stories of my fear of the bat in my apartment, my love of buffaloes, and my scuba diving. When I first started teaching and a student bumped into me at the grocery store, they were shocked, not realizing that I lived a normal life like them. Now, I bump into students at the Roller Derby, Manna Cafe or the grocery store and we can strike up a conversation about their out of school activities without a blink.

But it isn't all one-sided. By sharing my stories with them, they also tell me about their successes and achievements outside of school. This mutual sharing continues to build trust and respect. And, when they are having a bad or off day, they are more willing to share why and I give them the space and time needed to deal with it.

Just as we should remember the Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would have done unto you, we should also remember Callahan's Law "Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased — thus do we refute entropy." (Spider Robinson, Callahan and Company)