The Power of Educator Authenticity
I was scrolling through my emails this morning, and I just came across an email a student sent me almost ten days ago.
In the email, he referenced the following class day:
Class had just begun and students were writing in their journals…I can’t remember the topic. Out of the blue, this particular student asked if I wanted to read his entry. If a student specifically asks me to read something, I am always going to say yes, so I turned his paper to face me. When I was finished, I looked up at him and asked, “Are you going to throw this away?” It had been written on a single sheet of paper, and I have learned that such entries usually find themselves to the bottom of the trash can. He shrugged. “Probably.” “Can I keep it?” He nodded his head, and I slipped it under the papers on my clipboard. I later showed it to his mother, a colleague of mine, boasting how insightful he was, and how he has so much potential. In the past, she has expressed frustration at his lack of commitment and motivation, and I wanted to show her what he was capable of.
So, now that you have backstory, let’s return to the email. He explained that he had been confused when I asked whether or not he was going to trash his words. In response to this moment in class, he sent me a short paragraph he wrote, along with an intro that contained the following line:
Just thought you MIGHT want to get an insight to what my mind is like. If you don’t have the time or if it’s a teacher thing then you don’t have to read on.
And, of his own volition, this student provided me with a writing sample…
This is not the first time something similar has happened this year.
The power of this moment is that, because of the space I’ve provided my kids, I can now talk to him about what he wrote. Make sure he’s okay with the way his mind is working. And talk about the creative options he has if he would like to express himself more.
This moment made me realize, suddenly, that teacher authenticity is so important. We aren’t here to be our students’ friends, but we are here to be their mentors. And when we show a genuine interest in their work, we provide a space for their voices to be heard.
Teacher authenticity leads to student authenticity.
One of the things I pride myself on is my ability to interact with students. I’ve had so many great, insightful conversations with my kids. I have moments where they’ve opened up because they know I care. Sometimes, because of how young I look, I worry they don’t view me with authority. But, I do know that many of them respect me, and many of them are willing to work for me. Maybe not always in the ways I want or expect, but in the ways described above.
I’m not going to lie, I shied away from getting to know my kids in the beginning. And I still work to try to keep boundaries in place. I know my limitations as a person, and I know there are things I’m not equipped to handle. But, by opening doors to creativity and authenticity, sometimes other stuff, harder stuff, gets dragged in along with it. And it’s scary, and difficult to navigate. I’ve had to reiterate with some students, “I am a mentor, not a friend.” Finding that balance, where I remain professional yet authentic, is something that I struggle with on the daily. But when moments like today happen, when a student voluntarily reaches out, I can’t help but feel like the whole process is worth the struggle.
Note: After writing this, I had class with this student. I pulled him aside when the bell rang. “First, I wanted you to know that I only just saw your e-mail…I wasn’t ignoring you. But I first want to ask if you are okay? It seems like you have a lot going on in your head.” He looked skeptical, “Yeah, I’m good.” I could tell he wasn’t sure where this conversation was going, and the question seemed to catch him off guard. But I persevered (awkwardly…if you know me, you’ll know I do everything awkwardly!) “I just wanted to check. Thank you, by the way, for sharing. I always love reading your stuff, and I notice you’ve been wanting me to read more of your work lately.” He kind of nodded, so I continued, “Would you be interested in writing creatively? I think maybe getting some stories down might help settle all of the stuff going on in your head. And I could help you…I didn’t know if you would be interested, but it’s something to think about.” Opening these doors for students always leaves me feeling uncertain, but he nodded again and said, “Yeah, okay. I’ll think about it,” before turning and walking out the door.