An Apology to Our Students

This piece is my response to Arizza’s piece, “An Apology to Pisay”. Add her in Facebook; it’s worth it.

“Don’t be afraid to be the bad guy.”

That is the advice I often give to new teachers. And it is the advice that often stuns them — like a deer staring at oncoming headlights.

“Want to know my first mistake when I was starting out?” They tentatively nod. “Wanting the students to like me. If you’re thinking that, think again.”

That hushes them. Probably makes them even afraid. Of me.

“Don’t think twice about getting tough. Make them work. Make them sweat a bit.” I say these words with the theatric passion of a mafia don. “Make them earn your respect.”

And then a student of mine passes by and I transform. “Hi, sir!” They greet excitedly.

“Hey, there!” I meet their greet. “How are you?” I say with a smile. And we exchange pleasantries; they on their way to class and me halfway through lunch. All smiles all around.

Then one of the new guys ask, “For someone who talks about being the bad guy, you seem pretty liked.”

“That’s the thing,” I pause to chew. “Be the bad guy, not the asshole.”

These days, our students’ fatigue is so thick you can carve statues out of it. It is almost December, yet there is a grim, dark pallor in the places where Christmas used to be. This almost feels like some sordid version of A Christmas Carol where Ebenezer got to convince the three ghosts to give up on Christmas instead. Humbug.

Things have gotten so grim that some feel like apologizing for becoming Scrooge (while others surrendered and just fully embraced their newfound Scrooge-ness). Yet, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but feel some culpability. When students feel that they are living in Voldemort-like dark times, then who is to blame? Who turned off the lights?

I often feel that students today don’t give themselves enough credit. The things they do are difficult. And when they happen to be gifted, multi-talented, and over-achieving, they tend to be even tougher on themselves. Sure, they get 80% done but it is the elusive 20% that keeps them up at night. (And I work in a school where our students’ 100% would already be everybody else’s 300%.)

However, this piece isn’t going to be about them. I don’t want this to end up as another of those pieces where they read, “It’s all going to work out in the end.” “It’s all going to be fine.” “It’s all going to make sense.” No. I’m not writing about these this time around. Why? Because these notions have to be earned. They can be understood as words and as ideas, but they won’t make sense and they shouldn’t. These words can only be spoken, not heard, if they are to be meant.

I’m writing as a teacher, from my generation to yours. And this is about what I feel.

Whenever I see my students broken, in despair, and hovering over the edge, I can’t help but think of what I have done — or haven’t done — to lead them to that point. Though to them I am only one force among a million other causes, I’ve come to understand well enough how the human spirit can be frayed by a single word or deed. I also know how it can be healed.

So I ask me now: What do I have to apologize for?

Certainly, not for making them work hard. I will never apologize if, for even the slightest instance, they felt that they had to work hard to survive my class. I will not apologize for the projects I give that further bore down on their already broken study habits and shattered sleeping hours. I will not apologize for the extremely high standards and expectations I’ve set, for I honestly believe that any less would be insulting to the likes of them. Furthermore, I will not apologize for the grades they’ve gotten; neither their joy nor their anger over them are relevant to me for they get what they give. No teacher, in my honest opinion, should ever apologize for doing their job well.

And yet, I know I’m not completely off the hook. No teacher is.

For in the same manner that students assert that their grades do not completely measure who they are, we teachers instinctively know that our jobs are not measured by the requirements we give, the percentage of the syllabus we accomplish, or the grades our students get. While “the system” may assert that they are to be measured as such, we know that they don’t really matter in the end.

What matters is that they discover who they are. That they come to the full realization of their potentials. And that their spirits are strong enough to overcome adversity, brave enough to dream and take risks, and humble enough to find fulfillment in whatever they choose to do. All the skills, theories, laws, and equations are secondary to their character. For men and women with no integrity, identity, and strong sense of purpose ever will themselves beyond the shore. And if our intent is to form future navigators, visionaries, and innovators, then we fail whenever one of them just end up coasting by the bay.

Thus, when our students feel inadequate, broken, lost, defeated, and powerless then we have much to apologize for. Sorry if I didn’t compliment you on that awesome essay you did there. I apologize if you feel you could’ve been a better leader and I didn’t give you a chance. Is this task a little too much for you? I’m sorry about that, so come here and let me help you get started. I’m sorry if I offended you with what I said, I’d really like to know what you think. And I’m sorry if I didn’t trust you; I’m glad you have proven me wrong.

In the hustle and bustle of high school life, we often miss the fact that a lot of us teachers signed on to this job for largely idealistic reasons. Students don’t have a monopoly of it. And, I daresay, this is one line of work where idealism comes as an asset. We teachers have had our fair share of tough times. And yet we get to say, “Become the change you seek.” “Keep on keeping on.” Because we’ve earned it. We’ve earned it precisely because we lived through the times you’re living through now. We kept on keeping on. We became the change we sought.

Never forget that dreaming is hard work. It’ll be tough. You’ll never have your way. From time to time, you’ll have to be the bad guy. Just don’t be an asshole.

Take it from me.

With much love,

Sir Martin

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