New academic year, and even more stress for new teachers—including the traditional advice heaped on those new teachers, including:
I’ve been mulling it over and want to know what y’all think. I’ve heard over and over, “Don’t smile ’till Halloween.” How does that work with welcoming/safe learning environments? #TSUEnglishMAE
— Robert (@MrPaynenotMax) August 28, 2018
Another pearl of wisdom along the same lines is the warning that teachers shouldn’t be friends with students.
Both are deeply flawed advice because they misrepresent basic humanity, essential goals of being a teachers, and the positive qualities demonstrated by friendship.
Telling teachers to be humorless, ostensibly tough, in the first months of any class is a truly perverse view of the relationship necessary for a teacher to be effective. This advice also expresses a really ugly view of human nature, and young people.
One thing I have learned over 35 years of teaching and almost 30 years of being a parent and now grandparent is that children and young people need and appreciate adult transparency and consistency. They also respond to our modeling kindness, patience, and respect.
Taking on the veneer of being humorless and tough is a false representation of Self, and doing so for a set few weeks or months—obviously as a precursor to becoming your true Self—is setting students up to distrust the teacher as yet another adult playing roles and yet another adult who students cannot anticipate or trust.
So here is better advice: From second one of any new class, teachers should be their full and authentic Selves, and should seek to be kind, open, genuine, and trustworthy.
In short, as the professional in the room, teachers should model from that first second and throughout their teaching the sort of ethical and loving human we would want all children to become.
Of course, the Teacher Self is a version of our fuller Self beyond the classroom. But that Teacher Self should never be something forced or artificial—in part because I firmly believe students sense that and learn to distrust it.
This advice about being stern, deadly serious, is akin to “don’t be friends with your students,” another piece of horrible advice in terms of the relationship between teacher and students as well as a complete misreading of “friendship.”
To be a friend with someone is not monolithic, just as there is no singular love (familial love is not the same as romantic love, although both may run very deep).
Students as evolving humans need teachers as trusted mentors to model being friendly in appropriate and nuanced ways, and showing love, kindness, and even affection in appropriate and nuanced ways.
Friendship includes codes about trust and kindness that are not only appropriate for teaching and learning, but essential.
Over the coarse of our lives, we have dozens, even hundreds of friends—and those friendships are on a spectrum. We have collegial friends, recreational friends, etc.
But all types of friendship are not the same because there are implicit and explicit boundaries to those friendships.
Are you kind and patient with students? Do you spend a great deal of quality time with students? Do you seek ways to make students’ live better, more informed and joyful? Do you develop shorthand ways to communicate, to joke and laugh?
These are elements of friendship—and certainly friendliness in classrooms among teachers and students carries some important boundaries, mostly about levels of intimacy and professionalism (teachers separating the personal from the artifacts of learning that teachers must respond to and assess).
This last point about boundaries is central here since I think people give horrible advice to beginning teachers because we tend to distrust teachers and their ability to be both fully human with their students and able to perform the key moves of teaching (mostly the evaluation and grading elements).
Teachers can and do hold those boundaries, make those distinctions—just as doctors and lawyers do, although doctors are urged to develop “bedside manners” to connect personally with patients in order to improve care.
Ultimately, to teach is about way more than the prescribed content of courses. All teachers are mentors and counsellors, fully human practitioners who are indirectly and directly shaping the full humanity of young people.
To this day, on social media and over text messages, I offer “I love you” to several former students—something I expressed when they were my students, and something they eagerly and often express to me.
We became friends when they were my students and we remain indebted to each other because we made each other’s lives richer in some way.
To recognize the humanity in each other has always meant for me that no boundaries dare be crossed that would hurt those students, mislead them in any way.
Nothing is easy or simple, but teachers being fully human—including being kind, joyful, and loving—is never something to be withheld or hidden from students.
It is imperative, in fact, that we share our full selves the first moment of any class, and then honor our own and their dignity and humanity throughout the course—and into their lives after school.
There is no room for pretense in teaching, and there is no shame in the kindness of one person toward another.