The Influence of a Teacher

January 20, 2013

For a group I belong to (an alliance of LGBT and straight adults in my community) I am reading Oddly Normal:  One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms With His Sexuality.  The author’s teenage son attempted suicide, and the book traces the issues the son had had in school as he tried to be himself (gay).  One of the striking things about the son’s elementary school days is how much influence each of his teachers had, for better or worse.  With a teacher whose style matched his needs, he was happy in school and did very well;  with a teacher whose approaches were constantly bruising the boy, he suffered psychologically and did not want to attend school.  While it is true in this case that his worst teacher was probably not, at least from the description, a good teacher that year, it is also true that for some of his other teachers, it wasn’t so much a “bad” teacher as a mismatch of teacher and student.

This is one of those truths that everyone knows but no one wants to acknowledge — that what works well for a teacher for one child doesn’t work well for another child.  We like to assume that “kids are kids” (i.e., kids act the same at school no matter whose classroom they’re in) and that a good teacher is a good teacher (i.e., any good teacher is good for any student).  But it’s not true.

When I used to teach middle school, I taught math, among other things, and more specifically algebra.  I loved teaching algebra, in large part because it was the kind of math that moved me from math-phobic to math-philic.  I loved the logic of it and the flexibility to use it in so many different situations.  Several of the students in my class had had, the year before, a different middle school math teacher.  One of those students was quite wistful about how the previous year had gone in math and told me several times that the other teacher was “really wonderful” (the implication being, given her sighs and frustrations, that things weren’t going as well for her this year).  Another student, however, thrived that year and told me that she was so glad to have a teacher whose explanations made total sense to her, as opposed to the previous year’s teacher.

So who was right?  Well, both were right.  My style of teaching math meshed well for one student, whereas another student found the other teacher’s style more helpful.

When we assign students to classes or groups, it only partly takes into account whether we think that student will be a good “fit” for a given teacher.  In my private school we do pay some attention to that, but we also have to think about class size, gender and age distribution, and the needs of the student (and his/her parents).  Sometimes we are lucky enough to have made a great match, in which student and teacher both thrive by being with the other one.  Sometimes it’s not ideal and you make the best of the situation.

It is certainly true that I have occasionally had students who just frustrated me or completely perplexed me.  But reading the book I’m reading, I realize how important it is to do what I try to do anyway, which is to keep trying to connect.  If I’m having a difficult day with one student, I may take some time during SSR to ask the child about his or her book, or to suggest a book I’ve read and enjoyed, or even just to check in about how his or her day is going.  It may not tell me much, but it gives us five or ten minutes to be comfortable with each other, to reset the switches and try for a better rest of the day.  Because teachers have so much control over the student experience, it’s my job to try to make that experience a good one.