The Teacher Trap

I somehow always manage to fool myself into thinking that knowing is the same thing as doing.

​Many new teachers get too caught up in the trap of wanting to be well-liked by their students. While there are good reasons for the “students don’t learn from people they don’t like” argument, I don’t think that being well-liked by your students is a key attribute of a good teacher. As long as we make teaching about ourselves, we are losing sight of what is important for the students. At the end of the day, it isn’t about how much they like me, but how much they learn from me. Despite knowing this, I still find myself looking to gain my students’ approval, because deep, deep, deep, deep, deep down, this is what it feels like to be the “cool/fun teacher” that everybody wants to hang around with: ​


It’s like that one tiny sliver of light you see at the end of a long, dark tunnel that says, “You’re still relevant! We need you!” The one great paradox of teaching that I feel will probably haunt me for years to come is trying not to take defiant behavior or ill-intentioned comments personally when I genuinely care about about my students and want to do good by them. 

At one extreme, trying too hard to be the “cool teacher” means jeopardizing my professional boundaries and compromising the integrity of my classroom. We’ve all heard this in teacher’s college, “Be friendly, but you are not their friends.” Of course, being totally impassive to your students feelings about you does not work either; at this extreme you risk being completely detached from the process of their learning. Maybe then the key is not to gain your students’ approval, but their respect and trust – a much lengthier and more complicated process… 

Yesterday I taught a lesson about Euclid’s theorem of proportional segments in right angled triangles (a wordy way of saying, “the geometric mean of a right angled triangle is the altitude from the 90 degree angle to the hypotenuse.” OK, I don’t think that explanation was any actually better).  For my starter activity, I gave students three red right angle triangles and one blue rectangle. The triangles can be rearranged to fit inside the blue triangle. I wanted students to use this fact to help them prove the similarity of all three triangles. 

The idea was to use the rectangle to show that all three triangles shared common lengths and angles, and hence, are similar. It was an activity that combined spatial geometry and logical thinking. I was quite proud of the lesson and thought that this would be a good activity for students so they could play around with the shapes and see their proportions.

Then one of them said, “This is so boring. Why are we doing this?” Those words cut through me like knives. Talk about being impervious to student comments.  I did not know how to respond to that statement so I ignored it and instead asked, “So have you figured out how to fit all three triangles into the square?” and I moved on.

But really, that comment affected the whole tone of my lesson. Instead of giving students the freedom to make their own discoveries, I spent the rest of the lesson trying to defend and prove the value of my starter activity. I ended up doing most of the work, and I let the students get away with passive note-taking. [Ugh! Seriously April, stop being such a pushover.] 

​Next time I will STAND MY GROUND, and no matter how long the awkward silence, or how much the students refuse to think critically, I WILL eventually get it out of them. They’re here to learn dammit, and I’d better make sure they are they ones doing the work. I hope to eventually gain my students’ trust; trust that I have their best interests in mind and will plan and deliver meaningful lessons and activities for them. Until then, I suspect  I will have to deal with a lot more resistance.

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