What a Difference a Year Makes

by Andrew Reiner

Before I started a new career teaching sixth grade English this past fall, I always thought that I would be the sort of teacher that every student liked. More important, I thought I would be a teacher from whom students learned a lot. What a difference a year makes.
It's time for final exams and I fear that I have accomplished neither with my students. This might not have happened had I paid closer attention to an article that my boss handed me last August. In the piece, a one-time English-teacher-turned-administrator discussed how, over a 25-year career, the most important thing he has learned is that the way to a child's brain is by getting students to view their teacher as a likable role model.
I stopped reading early on because I winced at the thought of becoming one of those teachers who cared more about getting students to like me then educating them. With the crisis state of education these days, I reasoned, there is no time for showering students with warm fuzzies. There is only time for teaching them the skills they will need for life in such a fast-paced, competitive world.
So once the school year began I decided that the only role I would play would be like that of Ichabod Crane, hardnosed pedagogue from Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Just as Master Crane had told students that they would someday thank him for disciplining them with blows from a switch, I imagined my students, years later, praising me for beating into them the desire to love learning for the sake of learning. I wanted my students to become literate people and revel in the glories of writing as much as I did, so I heaped them high with lifeless dittos about everything from the misused comma to the overused exclamation point. I even gave them extra literature homework so they, too, could appreciate the subtle nuances of the novels we read.
Surprise of surprises, my sixth graders reacted allergically to my introduction to scholarly enlightenment, responding with feigned migraines and the dreaded fish-eye glaze that causes daydreaming and, in severe cases, amnesia on tests. By mid-year these reactions became real enough that test and writing grades were dropping and no one ever accepted my invitations for tutoring.
To make matters worse, students commonly called me by the social studies teacher's name. I knew I should find out why he was so prevalent in students' minds after they wrote essays about people they will always remember and his name kept popping up. So I peeked into a few of his classes and saw why students were so enthralled with him. During a unit on medieval history he had students, portraying knights, sparring with wooden swords and shields and lacrosse helmets. For a lecture on the invasion of Mexico he impersonated Hernando Cortes, dressed in knickers, knee-high socks and a feathered hat. Instead of sparking my mind with ideas for teaching, the scenes inside this classroom enervated my already sputtering ego, and made me question my abilities.
Fortunately for my students and me, we all got a reprieve from the austere diet of my lesson plans this past spring when the whole grade spent a week at an outdoor ecological/adventure school. I went along as a chaperone. At first students cringed when I joined their groups on outings. But things changed when they saw that I shared the same trepidation while climbing a 50-foot tree and flying through the air on a zipline; when I agreed to make a fool of myself in a game of Truth Or Dare; when I played surrogate parent to the homesick. Since returning from the trip, many of my students began earning higher grades and, surprise of surprises, a few of the more rebellious students have come to me for help with grammar. Okay, it was only once or twice, but it's a start.
In hindsight, I think that my students' improved grades and motivation had something to do with the wisdom of the educator-turned-administrator and the success of my colleague who teaches social studies.
They know that it's not intellectual prowess or the ability to teach grammar that makes middle school-aged students want to learn from a teacher. It's the ability of the teacher to meet students on their own turf, their own terms-even if that means dressing up like a 16th-century conquistador-that creates an excitement about knowledge.
This is what teacher-role models do so well, and that is what makes them so powerful and precious. Anyone can create a space in which to learn, but a teacher who is revered and admired creates that rare nook where that most cherished goal of education-learning for the sake of learning-is found.

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This story was published on June 5, 1997.