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 as only to their chest to peppy morning news hosts, my social comfort zone lands just shy of requiring me to buy an English-to-Racoon 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.
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.
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.