I’m Not Elitist, I Just Parse That Way

My students have trouble understanding me when I talk to them. It’s hard to divorce myself from my too-recent college experience and remember what it’s like to live with parents, to have an allowance, to be so sick of that third-period government teacher who assigns way too much homework.

If I could get in their heads, somehow figure out how they see the world, try to understand that adolescent paradigm — my word of the week, in part because of the neato “-gm” digraph — I could be such a better teacher. I thought I had some small advantage over current teachers simply because I’m so much closer in age to these students.

I don’t.

Knowing about Guitar Hero or Super Smash Bros. only goes so far. That I’ve seen — and own — Zack Snyder’s 300 isn’t enough to really understand what makes these kids tick. Bantering only helps so much, and a rapport only goes so far. Quips and sarcastic rejoinders keep them entertained, but they don’t help teach.

I have to interact with them on the same level — and I say this without any conceit of “higher” or “lower” — but it’s all-but impossible to do that when I’m really in my element.

When I’m in my element, or just free-form writing, reasoning, responding, there is so much that is implied that I don’t feel I adequately get the sense of what I say across to my students. I can describe a situation, and to some extent, I can connect that to their experiences.

I simply can’t get them to care about what I care about. As they’re students, and as their needs come first, I end up facing the same Sisyphean ordeal every day, and in every class period. That link, naturally, is an exaggeration, but it has some truth to it.

What’s the best way to connect with students on such a level that there’s real discussion, and not just prodding them by calling names from the roll sheet? How do I make sure that students don’t just regurgitate what I say for the sake of a test, instead seeing that they engage with the subject, and that they connect with it on a personal level, unless they also associate on the same level with me?

In theory, and I paraphrase a professor or two, being visibly and actively engaged in the material is the surest way to get one’s students visibly and actively engaged in the material.

It hasn’t worked so far.

In this much, do I expect too much from my students? Should I just present them the material, test them on vocabulary and leave it at that? Or should try to get them to care? Should that really be my priority?


  1. dkzody

    I don’t have answers, but a bit of advice…be there, be consistent, don’t be their friend.

  2. Tim

    In addition to dkzody’s fantastic advice, remember that you’re modeling examples of characteristics that you hope (for lack of a better word) your students will someday possess. Your Guitar Hero/Smash Bros/300 hipness isn’t to show that you’re like them; it may, however, show that they can still be all of that in addition to being an educated, fully functioning (and contributing) member of society.

    Respect who they are, but show them what they can be.

    No, honestly they don’t care about what you care about. At least, not now. Someday they will, though, and there’s a really good chance that they’re going to look back at you as an example of why they do.

  3. I appreciate the advice.

    Hipness goes a long way to explaining things to them, though. I know of at least one veteran teacher who explains history by comparing it to the plots of movies and games.

    300, for example, helped me establish the importance of tactics in military thinking, and how trench warfare developed from the advent of the machine gun.

  4. I agree (as a self-styled aging hipster (doesn’t everyone think that?)) that hipness goes a long way. I just meant that I don’t exude it to be like them–I exude it because that’s who I am and can’t really be any other way. If they relate to it, cool. If not, well, that’s too bad.

    That begs the question: can third graders and a guy pushing 45 find common ground?

    (confession: I probably don’t really exude hipness…)

  5. As a fourth grader, I found common ground with my uber-hip teacher. He had a daily Far Side calendar, and had tests with multiple choice going all the way to BB — every answer past C was false — and a fantastically silly sense of humor.

    He was Dada, without the pretension. Well, not quite Dada.

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