At this point, my personal hurt (which had been growing feverishly by the nano-second), gave way to intrigue. She explained, "you're too confident. You just say how you feel. It makes me uncomfortable." Wow. Really? Interesting. Hmmmm... I had to ask her to give me a minute to think about how to respond. She did. She stood, staring at me, with a completely blank expression, having just told me that she didn't like me, waiting for me to come up with some solution to this problem. The oddest moment, thus far, in my teaching career. Finally, I offered something like this: "Well, I can't change my personality though I do want you to know that I'm here to help you with whatever issues you are having with the actual material in the class. I guess I'm just suggesting you muscle through this bad experience of having a teacher you dislike so much and hope you get a teacher you can like and respect next semester." And at this point, I really did feel sorry for her. I've had a few teachers I didn't particularly like through the years (the anthropologist at Eastern Michigan University who told our freshmen anthropology class that scientific research had proven beyond all doubt that men are biologically superior to women in every way was one) and it sucks to feel under their gaze and judgement for an entire semester.
The rest of the semester was uneventful except we did have a few interactions during workshops where she smiled at me and seemed to appreciate something or other I said. My typical respect for all of my students grew immensely for this student by the end of the semester. Though I continue -- to this day -- to be flabbergasted by the event of someone walking up to me and so plainly telling me they simply do not like me, I realize that it took a fair amount of courage for her to do this. She also ended the semester by writing a paper about how being in college was forcing her to confront the fact that she was raised to be a fairly hardcore racist. She was beginning to examine her racist views of the world. She had even made some connections with fellow black and hispanic students (she was white) that forced her to accept those views as flat out incorrect. Now, I'm not one to give a racist who realizes they are a racist a cookie -- I mean, duh. But... honestly, to be raised in that and grow your way out of it is hard, it takes guts and smarts.
So, it turned out that this girl was raised in a family where girls were meant to be "seen and not heard" and where racist attitudes were the norm. I never got the chance to tell her that it sounds like maybe we had the same family. And I don't know if I ever told her that this "confidence" that she saw in me, this willingness and ability to "just say how I feel" was one I fought hard for and won through my own courage, my own guts, my own hard work and smarts.
I think about this student often. I think about her just as often as I think about the ones who have appreciated my teaching, who have let me know that I have made some impact on their lives and decisions, who (seemingly) "liked" me. And, thank goodness there are enough of these students each semester to keep me feeling like anything I do is actually working.
(imagine I've written a brilliant transition to my next topic here) I am currently working towards a certification to teach group fitness classes. I am already licensed to teach Zumba and I was recently certified to teach Aquatic Exercise but by the end of the year I will be a Group Fitness Instructor. When I first started taking classes toward this certification, I thought it would be very weird to make the transition from English teacher to Group Fitness instructor but I am finding more and more that teaching is teaching.
A huge complaint I hear from many of my students is that I don't just teach English. I used to be very insecure about this critique because I knew it was true. I don't just teach English. I begin every composition class with Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (just the beginning of Chapter 3) and through that I teach them that true Communication requires Action, Reflection, Profound Love, Humility, Intense Faith, Mutual Trust, Hope and Critical Thinking. Learning this WILL and DOES make them better writers. All of these concepts can be readily placed alongside the Rhetorical Triangle teaching them how to make their writing logical, credible, and appealing to their readers. Sometimes they see and accept this. Sometimes they just feel like I'm not teaching them English enough. Whatever they believe, Freire is the perfect foundation for the rest of our semester. Every time (and it's only been a handful of times) that I do not begin my classes with this piece, I am disappointed with the result -- my students are not as invested, they do not understand the importance of writing, or of clear communication of one's ideas, or the sharing of information and ideas. Freire is a jumping off point to Transformation.
I don't just teach English because I believe that Education should be, and is, Transformative. I try to make my classes transformative for my students. I try to be open to the fact that my classes are also, often, transformative for me. I will never be "just" an English teacher. I will never be "just" a Group Fitness Instructor either. I will not "just" be teaching Step or Zumba or Bosu Ball or Water Aerobics. I will be hoping to help transform my students lives. Many of them won't be receptive to transformation but for those that are, I'll be there.
What was so odd about this student that told me she didn't like me is that she didn't want to be receptive to transformation but she was too smart and too courageous to deny it when it started to happen. Despite my being so unlikable, or maybe because of it, I know that semester for her was transformational. And that semester, I learned that students don't have to "like" me to learn something from me. So I'm still annoyingly "confident" at my job. And I still have no problem just saying how I feel.
(Imagine I've written a great conclusion here that wraps all of this up and ends with a bang -- I've got to go make dinner. Fish tacos tonight. Kids are fighting over who gets to pick which episode of My Little Pony to watch. My time to write and think about my teaching is now officially over.)