Remembering my students are humans too

Tori simson Photogrpahy

It’s that time of the year where all the assessments start rolling in. As an English teacher, this means I’ll be up for early mornings and also falling asleep in bed with marking next to me, sometimes waking up with sheets of paper stuck to my face and hoping that none of the hand writing has, unbeknownst to me, managed to imprint itself on my forehead (believe me, it’s happened before).

Teaching works in cycles, it’s always busy, but sometimes it gets hectic. Like being on some kind of terrifying roller coaster, you’re constantly moving. There are some slower moments, where you’re building up height, but you always know that the next dip is coming. When you’re making the speedy downward descent it can feel like being flipped upside down, hurtling towards some kind of terrible fate and you can’t see head nor tail between the endless endless essays (ok, so my English teacher melodrama may have gotten away with me here).

My point is that at times like this, sometimes it’s hard to feel like you’re human. You can be walking into class only semi-conscious and don’t even seem to register the students in front of you. Sometimes they say something, speaking to you and it’s like they’re a million miles away. I can already seem dazed and somewhat vague, but this characteristic really comes to the fore this time of the teaching term.

So whilst I’m feeling like an alien to myself, my students can also feel that way too. In all the distraction, sometimes I forget that they’re worried, they’re concerned, they’re upset, they’re struggling with their upcoming final years exams that I stress over too, despite not even having to sit them!

This week I remembered this again. When everything starts to get hectic, there are a couple of things that I like to do to remind myself that the people in front of me, are just that, people.

A fellow Teach For Australia Associate and dear friend gave me this idea first. When he’s supervising an exam or an assessment task, while all the students are silent and it might be tempting to surreptitiously answer those emails, he sits back and takes that time to think. While his students are working away, he takes a few moment to think about each student individually, what kind of a person they are, how they’ve changed and how they’re going.

Tori Simson

I’ve done this myself and it is an act of deliberate reflection that I get a lot out of. I’m reminded of the impressive patience and persistence of one of my less capable students, of the enthusiasm and joy that another quite boisterous student brings to my class. It reminds me of all the things that my students are, that aren’t measured on an assessment rubric or exam.

Another way of re-humanising my students is by doing something I like to call ‘taking stock’. The practice of ‘taking stock’ is different each time I do it, but it’s a task I give students at the end of a unit or start of another to just check in with them. I give my students a few prompts and some quiet in-class time to consider things like how their year has been thus far. How they’re feeling about English class at the moment, and if there’s anything they need to remind me of/let me know.

I also try to add in something that let’s them show me something of themselves, like telling their best Shakespearean joke (I am a sucker for puns). This seems a bit silly, but I do it deliberately to remind myself that my students are thinking, feeling, funny and creative human beings. In my last reading I laughed out loud at puns that managed to weave in an impressive interplay of the recent BREXIT decision into their particular dislike of Bertolt Brecht and was reminded (yet again) at how amazing it is that one of my students studies English at school, but speaks Chinese as a first language at home. Her capacity to grapple with both languages is well beyond mine.

These few simple things help me to do what I often forget to: empathise. I want to remember that my students aren’t just the sum of the essays that they write. Like me, sometimes they’re trying and failing, or tired and exhausted or energised or disheartened. In the end, they are people too.