Monday, August 30, 2010

how teachers influence us: the good, the bad, and the ugly...

Once upon a time I had a math teacher who I wasn’t particularly fond of. Shocking, I know! This particular math teacher asked us one day about what our dreams were. An odd subject for a math class, but he was an aging hippie, prone to venturing into odd topics to teach us about math. Anyways, in hindsight, I suspect this was a way for him to launch into the topic of probabilities in math.

So of course, being 13 years old, most of us dreamed big dreams of being astronauts, actors, and athletes. My silent response at the time was to be a writer. In the end, as he so kindly noted, most of our grandiose dreams at that tender age centered on being famous in some way. We all felt that we were destined for greatness. For fame. For money. The sky was the limit for our fresh 13 year old selves.

His response, albeit logical for a math teacher intent on discussing probabilities (which I think was his point because honestly the only part of that class that I remember was this section) was that it was unlikely that any one of us would ever attain our young dreams. And it still sits with me, rubbing me the wrong way, just as it did the day he said it. But it doesn’t bother me because he was a jerk. No. It bothers me because up until recently, I feared that he would be right.

While I might have felt outraged by his lack of compassion for our fragile and easily influenced selves, even then the pragmatic voice in my head whispered that he might be telling the hard truth, albeit shitty as it was of him to do so….
Our odds might really only be 1 in a million in the quest for fame. Great fame, great innovation, great financial prosperity.

Let’s face it, my math teacher made no friends in class that day. Even if we might know that there was truth to what he argued, we needed our dreams and were outraged by his audacity. My good friend at the time and I walked out of class livid over his being such a jerk.

But, I’m pleased to note that many in my class have defied the odds in another way that he failed to consider in his quest for mathematical precision!

Because attaining your dreams and living a life that is extraordinary isn’t necessarily about being the next great actor or athlete. It isn’t necessarily about being rich or popular. He failed to consider the nuances that make a person feel successful. He failed to see the multiplicity of ways in which we can attain our dreams or the ways in which our dreams might change, or our fame might be acquired within a niche.

I may never be the next Virginia Woolf. And that’s ok. But the other day, when a student came to my office and told me that she came for me specifically because someone had told her to see me, well that made me feel like I had done something amazing. I might not win an Oscar for it. But hell, knowing that I made a difference in someone’s education/life is a pretty amazing feeling. Knowing that this new student reached out to me because of word of mouth, and that I helped make her day brighter… makes me cherish how valuable my job is in the world.

But as I listen to student’s narratives about education/self/autonomy, etc… more so than ever, I’m starting to realize how people harm us in ways we don’t even realize. How family, friends, teachers, society, etc, create the internal voices that influence the way we view ourselves and our abilities. And this scares me. Because if I’m still put off by my math teacher from 20 years ago, what other voices have influenced my own narrative? And what voices are shaping the identity of my students?

I remember the teachers who nurtured me. Who dared me to believe in myself. And I remember the ones that devastated me. And I think that the teachers in our lives (from school, to family, to whatever form a teacher may take) need to remember that they can make such a difference. Such a huge difference. My goal this year at work, both in my handmade little art world and my everyday job in education, is to remember to see pass my mundane concerns and see the student as a person in need of nurturing. I know I won't always succeed, because I'm not the greatest of people persons, but if I'm so invested in this idea of metta, than I think it's important that I look for ways to bring it into my daily life.

Because I'm tired of the narratives I've been told and the narratives I hear: from believing that art has no worth because it’s not a viable living to believing that you don’t have enough talent to dare… who has been telling us these stories and how do we grow past them in order to be brave enough to dare for more and believe in ourselves?


  1. beautifully said my dear! i'm going to have my son read this. i wish he had had more teachers like you during his high school years! xo

  2. thanks! it's been something that I've been pondering a lot lately as the session starts up again.

  3. You hit the nail on the proverbial head lady-bird! Keep writing b/c even a cynic like me was inspired, elated and motivated to keep up my art and my dreams after reading your post.
    love ya and am super proud of you!

  4. Thought of the day:

    What is the definition of success?

    We dull normals tend to measure their personal success -- be it artistic, literary, musical, athletic, etc -- to the exceptions, the ones that "make it big". And half the time, they themselves aren't all that talented.

    If I myself write a book, it'll probably be a grammatical and literary nightmare; but it will be a success TO ME because I DID it. I don't have to be a Dan Brown or a Virginia Woolf to think of it as a success.

    So yes, with that said, maybe a simple "being referred by another student" is YOUR definition of success. And that is...

    ... wait for it...

    ... wait for it...


  5. Thanks Jen. Your enthusiasm always helps keep me enthusiastic too! Love having you as a cheerleader in my corner.

    And Paul, I think that our society teaches us to value the wrong things in success. Being referred is a success for me because it means that a. what I do is useful and b. that my anti-social ways are diminishing and I'm warm and approachable enough for people to want to come to me for help. Woo hoo, double the success!

    If you write that book, I'll be proud of you, literary masterpiece or pulp fiction that it is. Because you did it.



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