I got an ovation once. It was at the end of a student show at the end of the term at the international school where I was teaching. I was thrilled, surprised, honored by the ovation. Proud of my students and of myself. The group in the auditorium — students — stood up and yelled, “Martha! Martha! Martha!” But now I don’t even remember the amazing thing they did under my Professor Keatingesque tutelage!
For some reason, for years I was kind of a “rock star” to students. My classes were “not like the other teachers’.” I don’t know how they were different, but… For a while when I walked across campus students would cheer. It’s true. It’s weird, but true. I’m a humble person, and I found it kind of embarrassing and still kind of cool.
I wasn’t even completely aware of it as a phenomenon until, one day, one of my former colleagues at the international school asked me, “How’s teaching at the university? Are you still a rock star?”
That’s when I started noticing it. I also began noticing the way my colleagues looked at me.
We all know teaching is a serious business. Teachers aren’t supposed to have fun and students aren’t supposed to have fun. If the teacher and the students ARE having fun, no one’s learning anything. My experience over the years showed me that teachers are often among the most conventional and unimaginative purveyors of social norms. Thinking about that some more, I began to see that’s what’s expected of teaching. A teacher’s job is to keep the values of society intact. A teacher’s job is not to challenge and provoke and inspire. I began to see that clearly in the response of my colleagues to me.
If students do well in your class and get high grades, you’re an easy grader NOT an effective teacher. If students do Hamlet as an extended role play, you’re not teaching Shakespeare. If, in a class that lasts 4 hours, your remedial writing students turn out a complete essay, you have failed to teach them discipline.
I viewed teaching as a dance. The students were my partners and we were trying to get through the song with as much grace and joy as we could. I believed nothing was too hard for them IF they wanted to do it. I believed some things that were difficult were so good and so important that they needed to deal with them — but I’d help them. I believed they were human beings, and, as most were 19, they were human beings in search of self not in search of society’s expectations of them.
I’m glad I was a rock star. It’s kind of hard to imagine at this point, but it really happened. And there are students out there — now in their 30s or 40s — who know that some of our best friends are “dead friends” (exist for us between the covers of books) and that the Crossopterygii was our ancestral hero.