It always starts on day one of classes when my first activity is for them to line up by birthday, irrespective of year. My objective is just to get them moving, interact some with each other, and to suggest that my courses are not very conventional. The process is generally active, fun, and often results in some laughter as the students work out how to organize themselves. My role is solely the observer, confirming their accuracy, which more times than not leads to a second and rarely, third attempt by the students. In the end, they all get it right and carry their smugness into the next activity. It is what I carry into the next activity, and beyond into the semester, that I continue to find both interesting and frustrating.
All too often, the hubris of my many years as a teacher drives me to judge and pigeonhole my students as I observe them in class, interacting with me, their peers, and the assignments. The way they sit, move, speak, and behave in general begins to define them in my mind, classifying each into a convenient taxonomy. At this point in my career, the mental process is so automatic, subconscious, that it only becomes a part of my awareness when a given student’s comments or behavior shatters their glass case in my mind. The insidious part is that the longer I teach the more hardwired this function becomes, whether due to laziness on my part or the vast number of students who actually do reveal themselves through these tells.
Too numerous to itemize after years of teaching, I find it instructive to at least reflect upon the basic taxonomy my mind has created, and to consciously acknowledge just how wrong it can be. As I catch my internal talk begin to categorize a student, I strive to remember similar past students who have proved me wrong.
Stopping this self-talk is a good start. I have found though, that slaying this mental dragon merely requires me to establish a solid relationship with each student. That relationship generally starts with me saying something like “so, what the heck do you do when you are not working on school stuff?” and all those preconceptions disappear.