What Have You Learned From Your Students?: A Mini-Memoir

If I had to boil down the answer to the question above to one word, what would that word be?  Curiosity, honesty, courage, persistence, gratitude, hope, forgiveness, love?

And how did I learn it?  Was it from the student evaluations which came in a big, heart-thump-inducing envelope with CONFIDENTIAL stamped all over it?  Was it in the office visits from the ones who needed me the most or wanted more than they could get in class?  Was it what I saw on their faces when we got into the “flow” of conversation about ideas?

Was it from actions I took, like giving an F for plagiarism, or deciding whether 89.6 was an A or a B, or in choosing to confront or not confront behaviors that I thought were detrimental? Was it from all that endless grading into the wee hours at night or on weekends? Was it from being invited into residence halls to talk about my life story and listen to theirs? Was it from speaking in convocation to the whole student body? Was it merely from being an observer from the window–watching those young bodies play frisbee or walk to the dining hall in gigantic, erratic clumps?

And were all my students younger than I?  What about adult students?

And what about the students in the house, my children?  What did I learn from them?

Each of these questions produces at least one story in my mind, but I will focus on the first question, what did I learn from reading student evaluations?  Can I recall any specific feedback, or do they all blend into a blur?

I learned that students can and will say almost anything when their anonymity is assured.  They will comment on your clothing, accent, or any tics they enjoy or are irritated by.  This kind of comment actually helped me digest criticism because it helped me laugh.  It’s hard to feel offended when we laugh.

I learned that I loved reading all the compliments I received on those evaluations (is that narcissism or simply being human?).  Fortunately, there were many of these, and I learned that teaching was a good fit for me as a vocation.  Nothing drives our energy more than feeling called to do our work.  When students told me that coming to class made them want to read more, write better, and study harder, I was thrilled.  But when they told me they wanted to be better people, I cried with joy.

I also learned that if a compliment carried a weight of 1, then a criticism carried a weight of 10.  I think most teachers feel this way.  What it should teach us, I think, and I hope it taught me, is to be gentler with our own students.  Not less demanding.  Just gentler.  We all wither under attack but grow when the stake is planted in the ground beside us, and someone ties a string to the stake, places us in the sunshine, and gives us water and food.

Most of the criticism I received was from grading too hard, expecting too much reading, etc.  I rather liked this kind of criticism so long as it came from a minority, which it did.

The criticisms that stung have stuck in the memory.  “You live in your head!” said one student.  “You are more concerned with style than substance,” said another. In the 1980’s and early ’90’s there were comments about feminism.  I was told I was way too feminist by some and that I was not feminist enough by others.

These remarks remain with me because they attach to my inner conflicts. Each of us has a set of polarities we negotiate in life.  One of mine is head/heart.  Another is breadth/depth.  Another is change agent/respect for tradition.  When comments zing, they teach me that I should examine where I am in the balance between these poles.  Criticism, therefore, causes self-examination and leads to strength when we are healthy.  When we are not healthy, it can lead to rumination and morbid preoccupation.  That’s why we all need to be gentle with each other.  We can never know how able the other person is to receive the truth as we see it on any particular day.

So, I guess I can now modify the question and supply an answer.  From student evaluations alone I have learned one thing:  be gentle.

I love your question, Sonia.  Do the questions above spark any new questions in you?  How about the rest of you, gentle readers?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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8 Responses to What Have You Learned From Your Students?: A Mini-Memoir

  1. Karin Larson Krisetya says:

    It is so true what you say, Shirley, that remarks remain because they mean something to us that already exists within us–a struggle of one sort or another. I had my 8th grade English students evaluate me a few years ago, and I will never forget what a number of them said, “You don't smile enough.” I was so saddened to read that. (Frowned even more than I had been before!) It reverberated with me because of the tension I feel between work and play. I deal with this tension every day as a mother, and I can hardly bear to read the story of Martha and Mary because it hits too close to home. Be gentle–yes with ourselves as well!

  2. Gutsy Writer says:

    Very interesting post Shirley. The one thing I wanted to question though, is sometimes people will criticize a person, just to be mean. Did you find that happening as a teacher, and if so, more with adult students than children?I know in my online memoir critique class, I got a really fantastic critique from my teacher about scene setting and building tension in “expert,” fashion when I submitted my chapter on Hurricane Ivan in Belize. As far as students critiquing, they didn't offer much, and many of them refused to even be bothered. Quite sad.

  3. shirleyhs says:

    Yes, indeed. Give yourself lots of gentleness. You deserve it, and you are like your students–in need of TLC. Maybe you can ask your students for suggestions for how to smile more. It might be very interesting to have them write about what makes them smile or the times they remember you smiling or what they would like to see you smile about. That's another thing I learned. I sometimes told students what kind of feedback I had received from a previous class and asked them to help me improve. Pretty remarkable how that shows them that you, too, are a learner. Is smiling in Indonesia a cultural expectation different from other cultures you were raised in?Do you see Martha frowning and Mary smiling? I see Martha whistling as she sets the table and sweeps the floor and only frowning when she wants Mary to help. And Mary is a pretty serious character, not exactly a bundle of laughs. Makes me smile to think about both of them. They need each other! 🙂

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Meanness. I had one or students in my career who seemed to be setting themselves up against me. They were all traditional-age college students. But I would call them more rebellious than mean.Adult students in an online class might not recognize how much they could learn from critiquing other papers. Also, teachers can explain what they want and expect. Often, they can set up the conditions that will encourage group critique. Glad the teacher gave you what you need, even if the other students did not.

  5. Karin Larson Krisetya says:

    It is so true what you say, Shirley, that remarks remain because they mean something to us that already exists within us–a struggle of one sort or another. I had my 8th grade English students evaluate me a few years ago, and I will never forget what a number of them said, “You don't smile enough.” I was so saddened to read that. (Frowned even more than I had been before!) It reverberated with me because of the tension I feel between work and play. I deal with this tension every day as a mother, and I can hardly bear to read the story of Martha and Mary because it hits too close to home. Be gentle–yes with ourselves as well!

  6. Gutsywriter says:

    Very interesting post Shirley. The one thing I wanted to question though, is sometimes people will criticize a person, just to be mean. Did you find that happening as a teacher, and if so, more with adult students than children?I know in my online memoir critique class, I got a really fantastic critique from my teacher about scene setting and building tension in “expert,” fashion when I submitted my chapter on Hurricane Ivan in Belize. As far as students critiquing, they didn't offer much, and many of them refused to even be bothered. Quite sad.

  7. shirleyhs says:

    Yes, indeed. Give yourself lots of gentleness. You deserve it, and you are like your students–in need of TLC. Maybe you can ask your students for suggestions for how to smile more. It might be very interesting to have them write about what makes them smile or the times they remember you smiling or what they would like to see you smile about. That's another thing I learned. I sometimes told students what kind of feedback I had received from a previous class and asked them to help me improve. Pretty remarkable how that shows them that you, too, are a learner. Is smiling in Indonesia a cultural expectation different from other cultures you were raised in?Do you see Martha frowning and Mary smiling? I see Martha whistling as she sets the table and sweeps the floor and only frowning when she wants Mary to help. And Mary is a pretty serious character, not exactly a bundle of laughs. Makes me smile to think about both of them. They need each other! 🙂

  8. shirleyhs says:

    Meanness. I had one or students in my career who seemed to be setting themselves up against me. They were all traditional-age college students. But I would call them more rebellious than mean.Adult students in an online class might not recognize how much they could learn from critiquing other papers. Also, teachers can explain what they want and expect. Often, they can set up the conditions that will encourage group critique. Glad the teacher gave you what you need, even if the other students did not.

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