I know, intellectually, how naive it is to assume that other people, especially students, are here to help me fulfill myself—naive at best and arrogant at worst. But . . . my own growth as a teacher requires that I face such awkward facts. To become a better teacher, I must nurture a sense of self that both does and does not depend on the responses of others—and that is a true paradox.
–Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach, p. 73
I’d be lying if I said I entered my library classroom with no care for what the students think of me. As much as I want them to critically question and engage with the information we’ll be discussing over the next 1-2 hours, I also want them to like me. I want them to think I am approachable, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and if they happen to think I’m witty, that’s just icing on the cake.
I can admit this now, but would not have dreamed of sharing this desire early in my library career. My conception of the classroom then was as a space where individual needs and wants were secondary to the higher pursuit of learning. I would have told you my class was student-centered, learning-outcome-driven, and that my own needs and wants didn’t enter into my teaching. It would have been a bald-faced lie.
Silence in the classroom was difficult for me to stomach, and still is–I just handle it better now. I feel happiest when I have a good rapport with students in class, when I see them smile at me, when we share a laugh or two. There’s a big dollop of ego and narcissism that enters into the classroom with me, and if I don’t acknowledge it, if I try to negate it, it just works itself into the learning setting in insidious ways.
Parker Palmer’s vignette about his classroom interaction with the “Student from Hell” is one I come back to again and again. (You can find it in The Courage to Teach.) In it, he tries everything in his teaching arsenal to get one young man to engage with not just the material, but with him. He does so to the detriment of all other students in the room, so focused was he on getting this one student to like him, and ends up ending the class in a “black hole” of self-pity and doubt. Later he learns that the “Student from Hell” was in the middle of a difficult family situation that was putting a strain on his academic work and threatening to end his college career. It’s a powerful story, one that highlights the interplay between two persons with unique perspectives, experiences, and emotions and how these subjectivities meet in the classroom.
The classroom is not an unemotional place. It’s a space made up of human beings, teachers and students, who through their interactions can shape and influence one another’s identities and experiences. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks specifically addresses the denial of emotion and ego that so many teachers feel they must do in order create a truly “intellectual space,” and how it’s ultimately detrimental to the learning experience. An intellectual space is made up of people, and as people, we want to connect. We want to build relationships and forge friendships. Fear of rejection is powerful. There are moments when teaching can feel scary, because it’s not just about what you are teaching, it’s about you as a person and a teacher, and about your students as people. In some ways this is far more pronounced for librarians, who have a limited window in which to create meaningful connections with students.
I’ve found that acknowledging my own desire to be liked in the classroom and understanding the impact it has on my identity as a teacher has been incredibly freeing. I’m able to say, “you feel like that class was terrible because you didn’t quite feel a connection with the students, but maybe it wasn’t so bad.” I’m also able to think about the ways in which feeling like I have a classroom full of pals might lead me to think students are learning more than they are actually retaining. It’s a strange paradox, as Parker Palmer puts it, but it’s one that I’m willing to own up to these days.