During my first year of teaching, an upset parent wrote a list of 25 issues he had with my career choice. Among the litany of no-no’s he brought to the administration’s attention: I had the audacity to sit on a student desk. My room smelled like dirty gym socks. I talked about my college roommate. And I taught “Huckleberry Finn.”
At 22, there wasn’t a whole lot I could say to defend myself other than I liked sitting with my students. I was a floating teacher and walked into the stank like everyone else. My college roommate taught me a powerful life lesson. And Huck Finn embodies everything that American literature stands for: speaking out against injustice in all its forms.
Even though I was wet behind my teacher ears, I knew enough about my profession to realize his stink with me wasn’t the gym socks. He didn’t like the way I taught.
I sat in a circle with kids and asked them about their day, even though they were in their teens and well past the age of share circles. Kids came to me after school to check in, laugh, talk about their issues, and get advice from a free armchair therapist. Had I been a 30- or 40-year-old teacher, the upset parent might have skipped the scroll, or at least shared it with me first.
Eighteen years later, I’m a 40-year-old teacher with nearly two decades in the trenches of public education. Though I’ve certainly weathered my share of conflict (like every battle-tested teacher on the front lines) I’ve found more praise than criticism for my unconventional methods.
Why? Because caring about kids is the most effective teaching tool any educator can possess when it comes to instructing America’s youth.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture where it’s not cool to care, where emotionless education has become the norm rather than the exception. Teachers are so afraid someone will misconstrue our emotion for impropriety, we are reluctant to show our students how much we truly sympathize, empathize and prioritize them in our lives.
King Lear said it best, “That way lies madness.” Or, in our day, a lawsuit.
The truth is, being a loving teacher is risky business these days. But I can tell you about the rewards. It’s a hot cup of coffee from a former student when you’re teaching Shakespeare and the students are restless. It’s a visit from another former student, now a young mom, because she knew you absolutely had to meet her angel-boy. It’s a letter saying, “I made it. I’m sober. I found a job, and it’s all because you believed in me.”
I could tell you hundreds of happy endings and dozens of sad ones, but it wouldn’t change the moral of mine: Love always wins. When educators let love define their role as a teacher, they don’t need to try to become a student’s parent, best friend, priest, therapist or doctor. Teaching isn’t about who we are to kids, it’s about how we treat them.
Being an empathetic adult makes you human. There is no shame in sharing our humanity or acknowledging that of our students. How can we create fully human individuals without it?
Whenever I feel myself start to falter, I reread a plea to educators from Holocaust survivor Dr. Haim Ginott, published in his book “Teacher and Child.” He explained how the atrocities he witnessed in a concentration camp were carried out by educated people, and requested that teachers help build their students’ humanity, not just their classroom skills.
“Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human,” Ginott wrote.
Asking kids how they’re doing before we dive into learning, talking with them after school, laughing and listening to what they have to say, this is how we share our humanity with our students. Knowledge without compassion creates a world of smart, inhuman people.
As teachers, let’s help make them more human.
Emily Morrison is an English teacher at Bucksport High School, a graduate instructor at the University of Maine, and a writer.