By Chinonye Alma Otuonye
Walking into the classroom for the first time, I took in the sight of my new students: the students that I had thought so much about as I put their syllabus together. I watched as new people trickled in from the hallway, on their phones, knowing that it was only syllabus week so they had little work to do. As they sat down, they either remained quietly to themselves or engaged in conversation with others around them. But despite it all, it was obvious to me they were waiting for me to interrupt and begin class.
Admittedly, I was a bit nervous standing behind the professor’s desk. It felt like an unnecessary barrier between them and me. It marked me in a way I was not necessarily comfortable with; I didn’t want my students to perceive a distance between us. This process is a dialogic one and my interaction with them needed to showcase the openness of learning. I moved from behind the desk to a chair in the circle configuration that had been left behind by the previous class. My move made me even more conscious as the desk no longer hid part of me.
Getting ready earlier, the joke my mom had made has played in my ear over and over: “Are your students even going to recognize you as the teacher? You! With your small self.” She was making lighthearted fun of the constant questions over my age I have received for a majority of my adulthood. With that in mind, I wore my most “adult” outfit: a button up with tapered pants and boots.
Sitting with the students, I began the inevitable discussion of the order of the day. First would be introductions and then a quick overview of the syllabus and then introductions. In introducing myself, I began with a correct pronunciation of my name as well as what they should feel comfortable calling me. I then launched into a discussion of my academic journey, letting them know along the way that I was open for questions and discussions about grad. school applications if that is what they envisioned for themselves as well. As the students went through their own introductions, they told me about their majors, how they saw their futures, why they were taking this class. For many my class fulfilled a requirement they needed to graduate, but then my older students spoke up. They spoke about going back to school after years away, the importance and value of education, and the reinvention of themselves that was happening as a result.
Listening to them speak, I was a bit anxious about my place. Being in my mid-twenties and coming from a culture where children were often to be seen, not heard when adults were talking, this was a new situation. The title of teacher brings with it an authority and a hierarchy in that classroom that I was trying to dismantle as part of my own pedagogy; I couldn’t help but wonder what these older students thought of me as their instructor.
Before ending the class, we began a brief overview of the syllabus and I gave them time to write and hand in their expectations for the class, themselves in the class, and for me as we journey through the next four months, learning together. Packing up with these expectations in my head, I was stopped by a student. “Can I just say how proud I am and impressed by you I am….You’re so young and you’ve done so much with yourself!” It was one of my older female students. She wanted to know more about my journey and how I had gotten where I was because she too saw herself getting there. Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to say other than thank you. Coming in nervous that my students may not respect me or doubt my qualifications, I hadn’t quite thought about the opposite: that my experience could inspire them.