Introvert Teacher

I can keep about two friends at a time. Anything more than that, and things start to feel like obligations. I’ve never been the most social person, and getting older has done nothing to improve that. On a scale from forest hermits who haven’t seen civilization since their beard was only to their chest to peppy morning news hosts, my social comfort zone lands just shy of requiring me to buy an English-to-Raccoon dictionary and heading into the wild. That being said, my job requires me to be a relentlessly social person, but this semester, strangely, that wasn’t as awful as it could have been.

Hold on, let me look up how to ask it for directions.

Most jobs require some level of social discomfort, but I feel like teaching might be unique in that it requires a very specific brand of social presentation. For a lot of other jobs, you can largely be yourself filtered through a more formal lens. For teaching, you can still do all that, but you also have to make sure nothing influences how willing your students are to actually be students in your class. Making friends at work is great, but making friends out of students is a really bad idea. That being said, I think this semester was the first time I got to that perfect balance of being friendly with my students without damaging the fact that I’m the one who has to grade them and–possibly–smack a big ol’ F on their transcripts.

I think the best kind of relationship a teacher can have with their students is kind of like the ideal relationship to have with your printer: you need them to get their shit done when it needs to be done, but if they sometimes do it in a wacky color or toss out a paper you didn’t expect or even make weird, sometimes unholy sounds, that’s totally fine.

My ideal student

I have never been what some might call “socially competent” so getting to this state of teacherly equilibrium in which I can joke around with my students while also keeping them only as students is something of an accomplishment. And, unfortunately, it took until about the 13th week of the semester to really get there. It took until the 13th of 15 weeks for teaching to feel less like a job–even if it’s a job I really like–and more like just talking to people. I’ve been trying for a while to really pin down what teaching is, and after this semester I think I’ve got an answer. I’ve compared teaching to dog-sitting, and in my more bitter moments I’ve also thought of it as washing dishes or fighting a hurricane of badgers, but it’s not like any of those things.

My ideal form of teaching feels about like watching a show you really like with a friend who has never seen any of it. If teaching is like marathon-ing a show, then I am the friend who has seen the series a dozen times and spent much too long on the forums discussing theories with other like-minded weirdos, and my students are just starting the first season. My job then is to fill them in on what they might overlook as they get through the material the first time, to catch them up if maybe they weren’t paying attention for an episode, and to hear their ideas as they finally start engaging with something I love dearly.

By the end of the semester, it wasn’t hard to talk to my students anymore. It stopped feeling like work and started feeling like I was catching up a friend who had missed the last season of a show we had been watching together. Comma rules became explanations of why Walter was back to cooking meth. Argument structures became my own diatribe about Jaime Lannister’s terrible decisions. Research methods were just me explaining why Frasier should just be happy as a single radio psychiatrist and he doesn’t need to go chasing every unavailable woman he sees.

Teaching isn’t some unattainably brilliant authority orating before a rapt audience. It’s people who have spent a ton of time working with their favorite stuff who also want other people to see why that stuff is so great.

15 Replies to “Introvert Teacher”

  1. But then sometimes, maybe once or twice in a teaching career, you have one student in a class who is totally obsessed with you and is desperate to be your friend. This happened to me twice. In both cases I finally just said, “you can be my friend when you graduate.” Sometimes you have to be straightforward.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now I’m wondering if that’s something I have to worry about. I hadn’t considered that students would want to be my friend–mostly because I forget anyone would want to. Ugh, time to appear even grumpier and to hide my personal social media even more

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It only happens once or twice in a career, at least in my experience and what colleagues tell me. Who knows what inspires it? A good pair of shoes? Your eye color? Maybe your class is the only one they do well in? It’s random but rare.

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  2. This is a perfect explanation of teaching! Thanks. I’ve never thought about it this way. But I really like the idea. And bad semesters are like when you’re trying to convince someone that it really is a great show, but they just aren’t getting it like you do. Yes. I like this. And I’m glad you’re finally having a good semester.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love this. I laughed out loud for the raccoon-to-English translator. But yes, I can say that you’ve developed a great comparison. I loved teaching so much more when I relaxed with my students and connected with them. There were times that I was explaining something and their eyes were fixed on me with deep interest and then there were times that I was so excited about something and they just stared at me like I was a freaking weirdo. You do your best. I have students who have left my class years ago, mostly girls but some guys too, and they still check in every so often. It’s nice to see them growing into adulthood.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a first year Spanish teacher. I just got my course eval (voluntarily made by me) back and one of my students put as a way to improve (have the teacher be less awkward). Its really hard not to be awkward when your students don’t participate and its like pulling teeth. Trying really hard to find that balance! Congratulations on finding yours!

    Liked by 1 person

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