Coming Out in the Classroom

I know this title might be read in terms of sexual orientation, but it’s more than that.

I have gone through many phases in my career when I *wish* I was different in the classroom. Just this week, I observed a sweet young adjunct who teaches at our community college. While I can craft and execute a lesson about a million times better than her, I couldn’t help but wish that I had her amazing vocabulary–that I could spurt out words and string together concepts as eloquently as this darling 25 year old. She had something in the classroom that I didn’t have, and I wanted what she had. I always desire to be a bit more professorial–whatever the hell that means. Truth is, the meaning changes from day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment. Sometimes I am thrilled at myself when I realize I am the (or one of the) critical thinker/philosopher in the room, and sometimes–when going to see someone I admire speak, or even when listening to another faculty member at my own college speak–I feel humbled and not worthy and very sophomoric.

I am sure we all know how this feels; it can manifest itself in a bizillion different ways.

But as much as I have my moments of jealousy or yearning or self-doubting, I do know one thing: I am always 100% ME in my classroom. It took me about a year and a half of teaching to let down my guard in front of my students. Any educator has heard the adages, “Don’t smile until Christmas!” and/or “Don’t be nice!” and/or “Don’t let them know anything about your personal life!” There are many more along these lines of closing yourself off from your students.

None of those teaching commandments have ever worked for me. If you know me, you know that I smile at about anyone (hence my wrinkles), it’s practically impossible for me not to be nice, and I will vomit my personal life all over you while in line at the grocery store if you give me half a second. I came out–as myself–from time to time that first year and a half teaching, but it was a huge fight in my classroom–replete with a broken nose, a room covered in blood, and a very intense conversation with my students that followed–that I was my open self. After that interaction in which I was unashamedly MYSELF, my students began to trust me and that led to them working, producing, and being academically successful.

I think we all feel safer when people are real with us.

This video has been going around in my Facebook feed for the last 24 hours. I love her idea that we all have closets and that these closets are oppressive. I believe that this personal oppression seeps into all relationships, and if you are an educator it trickles into your classroom and your relationships with your students. I became myself through sharing my stories with my students for 10 years while teaching high school, and in turn they shared their stories with me. We all came out of our closets for 45 minutes a day. I’d like to think that maybe that time we spent together helped us stay out.

So while I might not be my idealized version of myself–super intense, serious, spewing large vocabulary words, sounding my barbaric yawp through professorial banter–I know that I am nothing but ME when I am with my students. That might just be enough.

Watch. It’s well worth 10 minutes.