I Promise…

I received an email from a student who was apologizing for failing to turn in an assignment. That’s unusual, in my experience. More often, students send emails describing why my “no late work policy” is evidence that my parents lacked the virtue of marital status upon the occasion of my birth. But this student said something at the end of the email that really kicked me in the gut. “I promise I am not a terrible student.”

It is in our educational DNA to convince students that they are obligated to manage the ways in which faculty perceive them. It is generational, endemic, and wrong.

I probably wouldn’t have found myself obsessed about this promise if I hadn’t been confronted with some memories of my own at that very time. A childhood friend posted pictures of us in grade school on Facebook, and we started reminicing about the “good old days.” But when they brought up our 2nd grade teacher, I felt a familiar and life-long pang of insecurity.

We moved to Colorado in the summer between my 1st and 2nd grade years. I can remember the first day of school like it happened yesterday – Ms. Smith (not her real name) looked at me with what felt like immediate loathing, and pointed me to a desk in the back of the room. In my adulthood, I learned some things from other teachers about the class that may have contextualized that moment; the class was overcrowded, and I probably arrived at the moment where it was all too much. Moreover, she was apparently promised that she could work with a cohort of students from 1st to 3rd gradel. I was probably a reminder of broken professional promises.

But I was 7. I was in 2nd grade. I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that Ms. Smith didn’t like me. She never missed an opportunity to make that clear, either. I remember promising to do better while she was pointing at me and yelling to some other adults that it wasn’t right that she had to teach children “who just can’t learn to read.” I remember her rolling her eyes when I hesitated on my multiplication table wanting to prove to her that I was not a terrible student.

In my efforts to create more learner-centered environments, even in the online setting, I want to do whatever I can to help students find the intrinsic motivation – the internal locus of control – to become independent learners. I want so much for them to experience the joy of learning for their own sake. But as it happens, we teach in environments that have already been defined by our own experiences.  Generationally, we’ve spent the better part of our academic careers promising teachers that we weren’t terrible students.  Is it any wonder that we pass that abuse onward to our own students?

We often talk about “teachable moments” or “just-in-time instruction.” These are times when we put the right information, or the right processes, within reach of students when they most need them.

But I am trying very hard to think about what it means to incorporate “encouraging moments” or “just-in-time empathy” into my teaching; not because I want to be Mr. Encouragement, but rather because I believe that this is an imperative for self-directed learning. Students need to worry less about making me proud, or pleased, or less unhappy; they need to be more worried about fulfilling their own ambitions, needs, and goals. Friere put it this way…

“It is fundamental for us to know that without certain qualities or virtues, such as a generous loving heart, respect for others, tolerance, humility, a joyful disposition, love of life, openness to what is new, a disposition to welcome change, perseverance in the struggle, a refusal of determinism, a spirit of hope, and an openness to justice, progressive pedagogical practice is not possible.”
~Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

So I’m turning this promise back at my students.

I promise that I am not going to ask you to prove to me that you are a good student. I promise that I will try very hard not to communicate that your job is to make me happy. I promise to try to stem the hereditary tendencies of education that communicate that it is the student’s job to make the teacher happy. I promise to do better, so that hopefully some day you don’t feel obligated to promise that you’re not a bad student. I promise.

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