So there

October 01,2009
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

I was talking with a fellow teacher from another college recently and I mentioned to him how much I enjoy reading my students' essays and finding out more about who they are, and where they come from. I told him that the stories they sometimes share with me through their writing are sometimes deeply personal, and that I felt privileged to read them. "Really?" He looked surprised and uncomfortable. He preferred, he told me, to think of his students in as anonymous terms as possible so he could concentrate on objectively teaching them the material. "Really?" I countered. I can see his point in some ways. In most colleges teachers don't get to know their students particularly well--especially at the larger state schools where some lecture halls can house as many as 80 or 90 students at a time. But I'm not sure I could teach that way; actually, I'm pretty sure I couldn't. I need to see my students as whole people, and for me, one of the great privileges of teaching where I teach is that I get the chance to know my students well, and I teach in a discipline where I can encourage my students to write about themselves, to share their stories, filled as they are with much pain, tragedy, and triumphs, too. This person went on to wonder (hold onto your seats, people), that perhaps I enjoyed the subjective side of teaching so much because I am a mother. I have pondered this question before, of course. I do believe that being a parent helps me teach better. But I know it helps my husband as well and he's obviously not a mother. Do I enjoy the privilege of getting to know my students more just because I am a parent? No, I'm sure I don't. I am a people-person and a writer myself; I need to see the individual behind the student, to place them into their own contexts, to see the larger landscape of their lives. The stories they share with me continue to take my breath away on a daily basis. I don't make allowances for them because of their stories when it comes to percentages and grade calculations, but knowing my students better helps motivate me to find better ways to teach them, to work with them, and to understand them as whole students, not just as the students I might expect them to be. I hope my childrens' teachers will always take the time to get to know them; I desperately want this for both my kids, but especially for L., because I know that getting teachers to really recognize his potential will be always be a challenge. As a parent I do know that it's important for a teacher to know their student--to know more of them than what they just see in one context; I think any parent wants this for their own children, whether they are five or nine or nineteen. I don't think it's too much to ask in the least.