By Erin Spampinato
For the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to write something about authority in the classroom: how we establish it, but also how we lose it, and what happens when we do. As I struggled with what to say, I was suddenly reminded of an email exchange I had with a close friend, who wrote to me after a terrible teaching day. I’m talking about the kind of day when you leave your classroom feeling small and unqualified. The kind of day when your students challenge you and you start believing that they’re right to do so. She had confronted a student about his cell phone use and he had responded by making a scene. She was angry with him, but she also felt ashamed that she had embarrassed him rather than handling the issue more discretely.
All teachers have had a day like this. As I reread the email exchange, I realized that what I had said to her in response was what I wished someone had said to me, so many times, after I’d had a terrible day in the classroom. When I first started teaching, I was often counseled by mentors to “fake it till I made it.” So, for instance, if I lost control of my class, I should go in the next day projecting a really strict, authoritarian demeanor. In retrospect the idea that I could pull this off is really laughable. Not surprisingly, it hardly ever worked and when it did it brought no real confidence; I always felt scared that at any second I would lose the meager power I had gained.
Maybe we gain authority (if it can even be called that) by modeling the courage of the learner rather than that of the authoritarian, by being the person who is willing to take risks and feels safe enough to fail. When we show our students that we can learn from our own mistakes, perhaps we offer them the safety to do the same. I wonder what would have happened if someone had said to me, “you’re good at your job, you messed up, go own up to it and move on.” I wonder if we’d all feel safer and be more effective teachers if we turned to our friends to hold a mirror up to our strengths after a bad day, instead of strategizing about how to reclaim control.
So my idea is, next time you feel like you’ve lost it, phone a friend and let her tell you what you can’t tell yourself: you’re human, necessarily imperfect, and strong enough to go on facing that reality. You might discover something that will be better for you and your students than your authority.
In that spirit, I’m including the text of my message below, with my friend’s permission. It has only been edited for concision and to remove any possibly identifying student information. That means it does include curse words, the kinds teachers since time immemorial have been known to use after bad days. You’ve been warned.
Okay, let me just give you a little bit of perspective. A) this happens to everyone who teaches B) this has happened to all of us once when the student was actually being disrespectful AND when he wasn’t and both ways make you feel shitty C) EVERYONE feels crazy and disrespected when they see kids with phones out. It literally has taken me 6 years to not see a phone and immediately start to have the physical symptoms of a panic attack D) phones just bring up the issues around control and performance that teachers deal with all the time in a really stress-inducing ways E) you’re human, even if you really DID embarrass him (I’m sure you weren’t as harsh as you think you were because you at your harshest is like the caresses of a soft breeze) BUT even if you really did embarrass him……
You are a good person. You are going to make mistakes as a teacher. Teaching puts you in touch with your sadism, your fears, your masochism, your anger, your paranoia and a whole shit load of other things. Just try to notice all the beautiful parts of yourself it also puts you in touch with: your kindness, your curiosity, your generosity, your passion, your creativity, your POWER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! ROAR!
Teaching is like birthing out the world and feeling simultaneously responsible for all its horrors and also totally unable to control it. There’s kind of nothing else to say but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
In the end, this is kind of my favorite thing about teaching. It’s a constant practice of learning to forgive yourself (not to mention others). You may have fucked up a little. You didn’t do it on purpose, but if you teach long enough you probably will have a moment where you get angry and do something slightly sadistic. I know I have done stuff that I really regret. And that feels bad. But you know what? It’s okay. That’s why teaching takes courage, because it forces you to have real contact with other human beings and it’s always confusing and messy. You’re giving your students a tremendous gift in a lonely world by being willing to have contact with them.
Erin Spampinato is a doctoral candidate in English at the Graduate Center and a Contributing Writer for Visible Pedagogy.