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A Teacher Learns to Let Her Students Be

Publication Date: 2003-03-18

These days, it seems positively revolutionary to tell students, "Follow your bliss." Our society will be the loser for our insisting, "Follow the test."

Note: This article is from The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 14, 2003.

When I first began teaching college English, I wasn't much older than my students. I worked at looking and sounding authoritative, going so far as to imitate not only the teaching methods but also the speech patterns (stopping just short of the heavy Brooklyn accent) of my favorite English professor. I'd show those students I had something to teach them! But did I? Well, yes, but it was mainly the knowledge I'd acquired from my own teacher, Mr. G.

I had many good teachers, but none of them made the impact on me that Mr. G. did. He was not only passionate, but he was also funny -- hilariously devastating, in fact, in the face of literature he didn't admire. The downside was that my mind seemed so puny next to his (I tended to ignore the fact that I was 17 years his junior), my readings of literature so ordinary. It wasn't until years after my dissertation on Ezra Pound that I discovered I didn't really enjoy much of the highly intellectual poetry Mr. G. had taught me to decode.

When I first began teaching, the notes I'd taken in Mr. G.'s classes became my bible. To make literature matter to my students as intensely as Mr. G. had made it matter to me, I believed I had to be as much like him as I could. That was the selfless stage of my teaching career, a stage I'm relieved to say is over. The good news was that I was passionate like Mr. G. The bad news was that I was emotionally overinvested in my students.

Without children of my own, and with the energy of a twentysomething woman, I devoted megawatts of intellectual and emotional energy to my students. After class, I'd try to decipher the meaning of Valerie's compulsive leg swinging, Thalia's perpetually raised eyebrow, Dan's grin, Eric's furrowed brow. I devoted my weekends to preparing myself to answer any question that anyone could possibly ask about the poems I had assigned to my students.

"Get a life," my daughter would have said, had she been born yet. And while it felt as if I had a life teaching my students difficult poetry, I was, in fact, missing something vital -- my own creativity. Fear, insecurity, and insufficient self-knowledge had conspired to hide it from me.

At the end of the '70s, when I started teaching, lecturing was still the prevalent mode, which suited me just fine. I expected my students to master the texts and to scribble copious notes, as I had done. Yet some students resented my assumptions as a teacher, and they tended to be very intelligent, strong-willed females. They didn't agree with my model of teaching; they weren't courteous, like most of my students; they weren't interested in learning how to study more effectively for my tests. They didn't want to absorb material, but to have a dialogue with it, and they didn't want to absorb my insights, but to express their own.

Valerie's relentless leg swinging and Thalia's scornful expression were signs of their disaffection and anger. Those two scared me, though I didn't show it. I simply stood my ground.

During the next decade, teaching styles gradually changed: Discussions replaced lectures, and take-home exams replaced in-class exams. Once in my 30s, I no longer worried about being mistaken for a college student, and I found my own voice in the classroom. I enjoyed weaving a discussion's various strains of opinion into a coherent whole. Feeling the confidence that comes with authenticity, I worried less about my authority in the classroom and became more committed to my students' independence.

After my first child was born, my relationship to my students changed still more. I no longer spent weekends holed up in my study (which had become my daughter's bedroom), poring over poems, checking the dictionary for nuances I might have overlooked. Stroller rides and nursing sessions occupied me instead. When I gave a talk at my college, the topic was mothers and children in poetry. In front of my American-literature class, I'd peek at my watch to see how much time was left until I could pick up my daughter at the baby sitter's.

Pam, the baby sitter, became the new authority I depended on. I so leaned on her that I had nightmares in which she disappeared and I didn't know what to do. It wasn't just that I needed a baby sitter who was trustworthy and reliable. I see now that I also needed someone to show me the proper relationship between caring for a child and fostering her autonomy -- as I had learned to nurture my students yet give them their independence.

Pam seemed a natural at that, always encouraging the children she cared for to do whatever they could on their own: "Go ahead, Susan, take your yogurt snack out of the fridge. Please put away the Ritz Bits, Alison." And there they would go, happily doing what, at home, I would automatically do for my child.

My own mother was as warm and attentive as Pam. But unlike Pam, my mother did not encourage independence. Her impulse was to do everything for me -- conveying the message that I wasn't competent to fend for myself. Now I see that whatever part my mother played in making me who I am, I have always struggled to find the right balance between dependency and autonomy. Because I distrusted my own resources, as a teacher and as a mother, I felt intensely in need of those who seemed to possess the know-how I lacked.

Time and experience have shown me that not only did I deflate my own capacities, but I also inflated those of my mentors. Mr. G. was, indeed, a gifted teacher, and he remains a highly valued part of my life. Yet he became so embittered by his university that he retired early and turned to training dogs for a living. I eventually saw that Pam did not have all the answers, either. She divorced her husband and married a high-school sweetheart, who abused her until he was curbed with a restraining order. I know that she continues to be a devoted mother, just as Mr. G. is a highly regarded teacher of dog owners and a devoted friend to me. But they have no hot lines to heaven, no more power to make things go right than anyone else -- including me.

My challenge as a teacher and mother, as I see it now, is to guide my charges responsibly and wholeheartedly, without asking that they fulfill my idea of what they should be or know -- so that, unlike me, they will trust themselves.

That's easy to say. It's not even so hard to do now, when I put on my teacher's hat. Teachers have the opportunity to be intellectually and emotionally engaged with their students, without the complex, history-laden entanglements that make disinterest so difficult in parent-child relationships.

Students tell me sometimes that they want to major in English, but their parents are pressuring them toward more-practical choices, like economics or education or biology. Or that they want to take some time off from school, but their parents tell them not to -- fearful that their absence from academe might not make their hearts grow fonder of it. Recently, a student confided that it was frustrating to read about peoples' lives instead of really living.

"So live!" I tell my students. I refer them to James Baldwin's story "Sonny's Blues." Playing jazz is the only thing Sonny wants to do, he tells his older brother, who replies like an anxious parent: "You know people can't always do exactly what they want to do." Sonny responds, "No, I don't know that. ... I think people ought to do what they want to do, what else are they alive for?"

"Do what you want to do," I urge my students. "Follow your bliss," as Joseph Campbell used to say. That is strenuous advice, requiring one to leave behind mother and father, mentor, and accustomed comforts to find what is essential, even sacred, to the self. I know how important that is, and also how challenging, because I did it myself.

Close to 20 years after getting my Ph.D., I realized that I wanted not only to read, interpret, and talk about literature, but also to write it. I had told myself that I appreciated good literature too much to risk writing bad stuff, that I was intelligent but not imaginative, that I didn't have anything to write about. But I found myself turning a theoretical essay into fiction. I got an M.F.A. and found my own voice as a writer, many years after finding it as a teacher.

Still, I find it hard to tell my children what I tell my students: "Live! Follow your bliss!" That is especially the case with my daughter, who is now readying herself for college. Alison is a fine student and an exceptionally perceptive young person. But I can't help seeing that she could be trying harder, doing more, or doing it sooner or more passionately. Under such a tyranny of expectation, of course, she has to rebel, reminding me of leg-swinging Valerie and scornful Thalia. Just as I've learned to do with my students, I have to keep reminding myself to respect my children's natures, to value their autonomy over my desires for them, my sense of what they could do if they just saw things from a broader perspective -- mine.

The last time I taught Tillie Olsen's famous story "I Stand Here Ironing," my students saw the protagonist, a mother, as insufficiently attentive to her growing daughter's needs. They also saw the mother as loving, but trapped by social and economic circumstances. All true. But what I couldn't help stressing was the wisdom of the mother's words when she rehearses what she would say to the teacher who has called her in for a conference about her 19-year-old daughter, were she to go: "Let her be." Three simple words spell out a path so difficult for parents like me to follow, parents who commit the common error of overinvolvement.

"Let her be," I repeat as a mantra, stilling my impulse to lecture my daughter, to steer her in this direction or that. She will find her way. Most college students do, by fumbling and stumbling, all the while taking in more than they are aware of, reflecting what we parents and teachers have given them in forms we hardly recognize.

That is how it should be. Education is about transformation -- not into what we, as parents and teachers, may wish young people to be, but into themselves.

Natalie Harris is an associate professor of English at Colby College.

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