By Paula Marantz Cohen
Some of my most effective years as a teacher were very early in my career. Although I had no experience in the classroom and was new to my subject matter, I had the advantage of being close in age to the freshmen college students I was teaching. Their interests, hopes, dreams, and anxieties were close to my own. I could tailor my teaching to connect to their most important concerns—these were mine as well. During my first year as a teacher, when I was 26, I wrote a sample essay for my expository writing class about what it felt like to go home for Thanksgiving. I would never presume to do this now. But at the time, I didn’t think twice, and the essay got a good response. Some of the subsequent essays I received from students were better than my own.
When I married and had children, my effectiveness as a teacher dropped precipitously. Although college kids still like the Berenstain Bears books and Jolly Ranchers, they like them in a different way than do 6-year-olds (the nostalgia of young adults was a topic of an earlier column). As my attention shifted to my young children, I lost touch with my adolescent self. At the same time, the experience of adolescence also began to change, if not fundamentally, then superficially. My students dressed differently and listened to different music than I did at their age. They had also begun to relate to technology, while I was still, at the time, technologically ignorant. In short, I didn’t have the references they did. And so my teaching for a period of more than a decade was not what it had been. I found myself “pushing” students—expending a great deal of effort to achieve a result that should come with more ease and joy.
But a curious thing happened about 10 years ago, when my children entered high school. I began to relate better to my students. Once again, I could understand their allusions, their emotional yearning, their stubbornnesses and disinclinations. But unlike my earlier connection to them as equals, I now understood them in my capacity as a parent. I was bemused and indulgent, and, when necessary, firm. And because I knew them second-hand through my children, I was not sucked into their adolescent drama. I didn’t take their behavior personally, which may be one of the most difficult but crucial elements in good teaching. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have expectations or be tough; it’s just that you shouldn’t see a student’s failure to, say, get to class on time, do homework, or proofread work as a personal affront. Teachers can inspire students to please them, but only up to a point.
The same principle applies to parenting, though it’s harder to accept. Your child may say she hates you and that you are a lousy parent, but chances are the problem lies primarily (though never, of course, entirely) with her. There’s no point obsessing about whether your neighbor is a better mother or whether your daughter might be happier in your neighbor’s family. Your child has drawn you as a parent, just as your class has drawn you as a teacher. Realizing this makes it possible to teach as your best self, minus the insecurity and paranoia that might get in the way.
And so, as my children entered college, my understanding of my students became more acute. I knew that the girl in the front row was sulking, probably about her boyfriend, and that the guy in the back needed to see a counselor and get on some anti-anxiety medicine. I had second-hand knowledge of the things that preoccupied them—the music, the politics, the relationship tensions—and could channel these into discussions of even the most weighty topics. A recent lively analysis of Goneril and Regan in King Lear is an example. Those flat characters sprang to life once we started to plumb the idea of sibling rivalry in a way that drew on my sense of my own children’s experience. Sometimes, classroom discussions uncannily mirror those I’ve had with my own children as they seek their independence as young adults.
Now, I am entering yet another new phase of teaching. My daughter graduated from college last year, and for the first time my students are younger than my own children, though still close enough in age to allow me to understand them—or so I believe. Eventually, though, I will probably fall out of touch again. I wonder if my students, or I, can wait until grandchildren come along.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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