385. The Teacher as a Person

Communicating by e-mail with one of my former pupils, I was recently reminded of the wall that often exists between teacher and pupil (one of the many things Caleb Gattegno taught me was that we should try to use the word “student” only when that’s exactly what we mean). There’s already something called a “generation gap,” and I’ve come to terms with that. I’m probably not going to get so I want my hair to be green or purple, and I’m probably not going to develop a preference for popular music that was created after my twenty- third year of life. Of course, writing music myself, and having good friends who write music, I’ll never be totally lost in the past, but I don’t think our music is in danger of creating any gold records (gold CD’s?).
But I hope that I never used my seniority to build the wall some teachers build. Some teachers are careful not to show their human frailties and ideosyncracies. And they don’t smile until December. In every encounter they have with children, they present themselves as THE TEACHER, not as the person who happens to be the teacher. Children quickly learn that there is something fundamentally different about talking to a teacher – that there are some things you just don’t say to a teacher, but they’re okay to say to just about anyone else.
Just a few days ago, one of my eight-year-old friends said, as he entered my apartment for a visit, “I just want you to know that I like you as a friend, but I respect you as a teacher.” I’m pretty sure he was told by his parents to say that. I immediately told him that I like and respect him as a friend, a learner, and a teacher. He liked that. He had been told to assure me that there was a boundary
between us, and I was telling him that I didn’t want that boundary to be a significant factor in our friendship.
When I’m in the teachers’ room, I can’t tell which teachers use THE WALL and which don’t. They all act like real people. But it becomes obvious the moment I enter a classroom. I don’t mean that teachers who use THE WALL are necessarily worse teachers; there are all kinds of ways to be good or bad at teaching, and professional distance is only one factor. I’ve had excellent teachers I’ve never even tried to really get to know. They’ve made it clear that that was not an option.
Some teachers go overboard the other way, spilling their lives out to the children they teach. That happens more in high school and college than in elementary school, but I’ve heard of elementary school teachers who do it, too. I think teachers who do that need help, and should find more appropriate sources. Children come to school to get help, and have a right to expect that they’ll do most of the getting.
So let’s not treat people as adults until they actually are adults; treating an eight-year-old as an adult is not respecting who that person really is. But I don’t think there needs to be a wall between teachers and children.

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