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I’m A Grownup And It Makes Me Crazy To Be Treated Like A Child Who Doesn’t Know Who She Is Or What She Wants.*

April 12, 2011

I was the kind of kid that had some talents or ability, but it never came out in school. • Francis Ford Coppola

In my experience, school is mostly about teachers telling students they’re not smart, they can’t learn, or they didn’t do it right, and proving it through tests and dozens of other classroom interactions that show students who’s boss. • Pam Parshall, former community college instructor and student advocate, 2005

My mother loved learning, but she hated school. She read voraciously and kept current on what was happening in the world until her death at age 89. She philosophized and enjoyed talking about big ideas. She was a talented musician who began playing the piano by ear before she started kindergarten, her skill discovered after one of her older sister’s piano lessons when my mother sat at the piano and began to play the exercise her sister Mildred was supposed to be learning, but couldn’t master. My aunt hated piano lessons and quit shortly afterward. My mother became the teacher’s youngest pupil.

For more than two decades, I’ve been asking people when learning was fun for them, and here’s what my mother told me in 2001 when I asked her:

I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.

She went on to describe how little recognition her years in school provided for the things she had talents for or was interested in and how much of her time was focused instead on what she didn’t do well, but would need, teachers told her, in some ill-defined future that didn’t bear any resemblance to what she envisioned for her life. “I struggled with many traditional school subjects, always being told I would need those things to be successful in life, but I never did,” she said.

Throughout the Second World War she supported herself with her music. As a single mother after her first divorce, she supported the two of us with her music. Her music allowed her to remain in her dream house after she and my stepfather divorced. It was her music that kept her moving forward many months after doctors predicted she would be dead. It was her music that was her gift to the world, that brought her a lifetime of joy. “This is something I do well. I know my music touches people,” she told me as she shared stories of people she’d connected with because of her talent.

My mother could never understand how I could go back to school again and again as an adult. “I’d never survive,” she told me. Sometimes I’m surprised I survived it too. Sometimes I’m not sure that I did. It is hard to stay grounded in the possibility of what school can be when you are surrounded by messages of multiple kinds communicating what it is not.

I was recently in a meeting where one of the values I didn’t check on a “good work”-related list was honesty. In the subsequent conversation, I realized why. I do value honesty—although not the for-your-own-good-and-needlessly-cruel-kind—but when it comes to school, I am often not honest. I have more often been compliant, my smiling acquiescence masking an unruly brain trying to figure out how to bend the system to engage my interests. This is not always possible, and as a teacher I appreciate the difficulties inherent in truly addressing the idiosyncratic needs of individual students, so I do not fault my own teachers.

When you’re an adult and you go back to school, your expectations are colored by the years you’ve previously spent in classrooms. If those experiences were positive, or if you’re a person who doesn’t really mind being part of a system—“just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”—perhaps you don’t mind being an adult student in systems often designed primarily for those who transition seamlessly from high school to college. But if you’ve had some life experience, if you’ve discovered for yourself that some of what you were told by your teachers about “real life” is actually myth, if you previously resented being cooped up in a classroom where your interests were seldom considered, you may be disappointed, disheartened, resentful, and recalcitrant when you encounter more of the same.

You may want to know why you should put up with more of what you know will likely prove to be myth as well. You may believe that this time—when you’re paying—the experience should help you become what you want to be, not what a system thinks you should be. You may want to focus on what you’ve discovered interests you. You may actually believe that you know what is best for you.

I am a teacher. I love my work. I believe in the possibilities of school. I believe in the power of education to change people’s lives. I cherish every educator I know who longs for her or his classroom to offer opportunities for true intellectual engagement coupled with recognition of individual interests and talents. But sometimes I am reminded of how much there is to do to achieve this dream in every classroom and how inadequate I am, even in my own. I want to make a difference, but I am overwhelmed by how much I cannot do. If she were reading this, my mother would tell me that it doesn’t matter what I cannot do. What matters is that I keep doing what I can, no matter how imperfect.

What difference do you want to make? What keeps you motivated to keep trying?

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible. • E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel, Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

In total, I can say that I learned nothing in any school that I attended and see no point in mentioning places where my body sat at a desk and my soul was elsewhere. I wrote some poems in high school but stopped when my mother suggested that I had plagiarized them. • Anne Sexton, from her “Resume 1965,” found among her papers by her daughter

School, I never truly got the knack of. I could never focus on things I didn’t want to learn. • Leonardo DiCaprio

* The title quotation is from an adult student who asked to remain anonymous, commenting on her experiences in college and being told by her advisor that he knew what was best for her, 2009.

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10 comments

  1. Wow, this really tracks with my experience. I did very well in school, despite being more interested in creativity and art–and was highly disappointed when I entered the real world.

    I returned to school for a Masters in education when my youngest went into Kindergarten. I lasted a year as the school situation for myself, my son in 3rd grade and my daughter unraveled. I was dismayed that what I was learning was more of the same. And the messages my instructors were trying to give me was “don’t touch creativity as a subject for teaching.” even though that was where my interest lay.

    I’m now homeschooling and trying to instill the passion for learning in my children. Because if they know how to learn–then they can pick up whatever it is they need to know for what they want to do.


  2. As a teacher of teachers, I really try to promote the importance of nurturing the creative spirit of students. It truly matters and is a key to people being interested and involved in learning throughout their lives. It sounds like your children are fortunate to have you and your perspectives. Beyond the basic skills, it’s extremely difficult to predict what a person will need to know over the course of her/his lifetime. A love of learning, linked to personal interests and passions, is a crucial basic skill that is often neglected in formal education. W-OZ


  3. All good things must come to an end, but in my case it means new beginnings. I have had an amazing experience at my placement and have developed a connection with my cooperating teacher that will last for years. I’ve grown in so many ways and learned quite a bit about myself in the process. Despite my enjoyment of the spotlight in my own family and friends, I’ve always been uncomfortable speaking in front of others; I get red faced and sweaty and my voice sometimes quivers. If that’s the case then why did I decide to be a teacher? No single response will answer this question, but one word will start us on the right track- passion.
    I have a lot of love and compassion to give and I think of myself as a pretty warm hearted, generous person. It’s hard for me to watch the animal cruelty or suffering undeveloped country commercials without shedding some tears in the process. I love life and everything it includes and I love to help people and see them succeed. These have always been a part of who I am as a person, but it wasn’t until I was about halfway through my undergraduate education that I was dead set on becoming a teacher. Teaching is a profession that will fulfill me by allowing me to help others and provide compassion and empathy that some might not otherwise receive. No matter how frustrated we might get at today’s rebellious and often disrespectful youth, we need to face the fact that they are indeed our future. I for one would like to be a part of their growth and development.
    Going into this experience I never knew I had the ability to influence so many young people. I always let me nerves get the best of me and get in the way of what I truly love and believe in, but I know better now. I’m stronger and braver than I ever knew. I can stand up in front of thirty plus high school or middle school students and be confident and excited while making a difference in their lives. I am able to form relationships and bonds with students and comfort a young adult when they are feeling sad or upset. Who knew I was capable of being so authoritative and firm when the time called for it. I’ve never been one to run the risk of hurting feelings or upset someone, so I feared I would fail miserably at classroom management, however I surprised myself and my cooperating teacher.
    My passion for education and my subject is what makes all my fears and insecurities seem silly and pointless. I’m able to hide my doubts behind my desire to teach and be a positive role model. My journey hasn’t been easy and it hasn’t always been fun, but it has certainly been worth it. I will never be the same shy, insecure and fearful person I was before I was a student teacher. Teaching has given me the confidence to believe in my own abilities as well as others. I’m so grateful to have had such a positive and wonderful experience that taught me more than I could have ever imagined.


  4. I definitely see you as a calm, confident, well-spoken woman. Your experiences mean that you will have much lived wisdom to share with your students and I know that they’ll benefit! W-OZ


  5. I have always been one of those people who liked school. Throughout my high school years, I was in honors and A.P. classes. It was only natural that I moved onto college. I have always had good relationships with teachers. My husband, however, had a completely different experience. Battling social anxiety and depression, he got his California High School Proficiency when he was sixteen and began working full time. His negative experiences in high school have led him away from school and into dead-end job after dead-end job. This has done nothing but fuel his depression and low self-esteem.

    Recently, however, he has made the decision to go back to school. I am so proud of him because I know that he is completely capable of success, but because he has never had success in school, he does not believe he ever will, even now.

    This is the difference that I want to make. I want to support students into believing that they can have success. I want to empower students to believe that they can rise above difficult situations and be proud of themselves.

    Today, one of my students asked my CT to be his mentor for a National Guard Youth Program. This is an intensive five month program that will allow this student to get his diploma, community service hours, and complete basic training. My CT was all but happy to help because she knows his home life is completely toxic. This student never has time to do his homework because he is too busy taking caring of his alcoholic mother. My CT wants to give this student the chance to succeed.

    I want to be able to help students like this. Throughout this year in the MAT program, this desire has only strengthened each time I have watched students struggle and rise up above those struggles.

    When I entered the program, I was completely unsure of my own abilities and authority in the classroom. I wanted to be a great teacher, but I didn’t know how. Now, almost a year later, I feel that I have the tools and abilities to accomplish my goals. Through my experiences in my placement, I have grown. Trial by fire has been the story of my life, and this was no different. I have learned by making mistake after mistake.

    If I could think of the most important thing that I have taken away from this program, it is that my students are most important. There are so many students like my husband out there. I want to be the type of teacher that can change their minds about education, and I sincerely hope that I am not the only one.


  6. Well, I know there are two of us, and I also know that this is the commitment of many–if not all–of your MAT colleagues. Incidentally, there is lots of advice for non-traditional students embedded in my blogs, especially earlier ones, since I began Zinnfull specifically to do this! W-OZ


  7. The End of the Journey Draws Near

    What a year! I can’t even begin to articulate the sheer volume of knowledge that I’ve gained over the course of this year. I’ve certainly had my ups and downs – more ups than downs but all in all I feel that when I have my first assignment I can actually call myself a teacher. The best part of this year has been the connections I’ve made with the students that I taught. I was certainly sweating bullets the first day that I showed my face in front of both the sixth graders and freshmen. Since that day, however, I’ve steadily grown more and more comfortable in front of the students. Will I still be nervous – um, you betcha! And it comes down to the rapport that I’ve built with the students – they have taught me many things and I can honestly say that this spring pre-service has been all about the students teaching me rather than me teaching the students. I’ve learned that there still a “voice” inside me that is aching to get out and when I have my own classroom I will be better equipped to find that true voice and use it to inspire the students to accomplish amazing things. While this journey draws to a close I can look back and see that the friendships I’ve made with my classmates, cooperating teachers, instructors, and the students will serve as a foundation to what I can only expect to be a rich and rewarding career. Thanks everyone and CHEERS!


  8. Dear Mister Pfister: Thanks so much for your good-spirited acceptance of the fun I’ve had with your absolutely awesome name! I feel as though I’ve had a little taste of how delightful it will be to be a student in your classes! W-OZ


  9. Wow… I can’t believe this year is already coming to an end, and it’s hard for me to even put into words how much I’ve learned and grown as a teacher and person. Starting this year off, I had no idea what to expect. However, this year has been much more than I could have ever expected or imagined, and I’m finding that although I’m VERY excited to be done with student teaching that I’m also very sad that this chapter in my life is coming to a close. It’s a very weird feeling! I keep asking myself, now what?? What happens next? Will I find a job? What if I don’t find a job? Then what?

    Regardless of all these questions and weird feelings, I must remind myself that this year was absolutely worthwhile in so many ways. Every single day was a learning experience where I was constantly searching for who I am as a teacher. I didn’t want to be a carbon copy of anybody but myself, and I didn’t want to employ any teaching strategies that didn’t fit with what felt right to me. In fact, one of my biggest victories was learning about who I am regarding my instructional style. I feel I already sort of figured out who I was in terms of building relationships with students and managing student behavior… those parts came easy to me. However, planning curriculum that was engaging, relevant, and interesting to teach was something that took a lot more time for me to develop. At first, I was consistently stressed out about providing “perfect” instruction and flawless and entertaining activities for my students. Towards the end of my Middle School teaching placement, however, I actually felt comfortable planning and enjoyed doing so because I removed the limitations I had placed on myself of doing “things” like everybody else—I did what was ME: my style, my voice, my expectations, and my way. In other words, I learned about the importance of being my authentic self in the classroom regardless of what others may say or suggest. I found that when it made sense to me as to why I was doing what I was doing that my teaching was much more effective and my students responded at a higher and more engaged level. I, ultimately, had to believe that I had what was required to be a good teacher, and because of an amazing and supportive CT and wonderful students, I was able to experience the power of being myself in every and all of my teaching experiences—now, that was fun!

    As I mentioned before, it is nearly impossible for me to explain what I learned this year in only a couple hundred words. I know that my journey is just beginning and my learning will never cease. I’m excited to see what the future holds for me and my colleagues, and I wish every single person many blessings on their journeys of conquering life, teenagers, and teaching! Good luck… Love you all!


  10. I can’t imagine your ever being a “carbon copy!” You are definitely an original and it’s lovely to read about your commitment to authenticity since I believe that authenticity of personhood is one of the most important things teachers can model for young people who are in the process of identity development. W-OZ



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