It feels good to be generous of my time with students, trying to help them academically, to nurture their self-confidence and to know them as people, a process that lets them see more of myself than they are used to seeing in other teachers. But this generosity, which is essentially a matter of treating students as human beings first and students second, can involve encounters that are both humbling and discomforting. Young people, precisely because they lack maturity, may not be aware of the possibility of responding to me as a human being first and teacher second, let alone feel a responsibility for doing so.
I remember a teacher I liked at Manchester University, when I was pursuing graduate studies in education in the early 80’s. I must have slightly wounded or at least unsettled him a little. He was giving a seminar in “alternative education,” something that I was deeply interested in. I remember feeling very much at home with the tone he was setting, and I could see, from the first group discussion that we had, that he and I were on the same wavelength. I am sure too that he shared this sense. No doubt anxious not to be “authoritarian,” and also aware that some students were not going to like his teaching approach, he told us that we were free to only read the books for the course and to not attend the class discussions if we so wished. I imagine that some students in earlier courses had given him a hard time, or had been at least unable to relate to his way of thinking about education.
I think I attended the class for a few weeks before deciding that I would take advantage of his offer not to attend the class, but not for the reasons he had anticipated. I was recently separated from my wife at the time, and was feeling very emotional about the need to have a relationship with my one-year-old son, Aidan. I wanted to spend time with Aidan on the weekends, in Oxford, but the early Monday morning class was making the long train ride to Oxford impractical. So I decided to take advantage of this teacher’s offer not to enforce attendance. I stopped attending.
Nearly thirty at the time, I am a little embarrassed now by my immaturity in not taking the trouble to go and speak to him about how I was feeling. I’m sure he saw me as a “promising student,” an honour I was frankly not accustomed to, and was disappointed that I had opted out. I saw this disappointment in his face when I happened to bump into him on the street a few weeks after I stopped going. It was a slightly awkward moment. I told him what had been going on, but neither of us quite knew how to articulate our feelings.
He had, in his own way, reached out to me, and I hadn’t bothered to take care of him, or perhaps hadn’t at the time had the confidence to try to. My own teaching career is strewn with interpersonal encounters with students where generosity of one kind or another on my part has not been fully understood, appreciated or perhaps even been appropriate.
Nowadays I respect myself for the effort I make, and am much quicker to express my displeasure with immature behaviour, much less afraid of being misunderstood. I like the fact that I’m getting better at telling kids off in a way that makes sense to them and makes them feel cared for, as if I am treating them as a human being.
So you could say that I’m feeling better now about immaturity. And while my own immaturity persists, 66 is an age that invites people to generously see it as youthfulness. And I don’t mind if I am deceiving myself that this is the case.