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Confronting our discomfort: some memories of teaching

I have been doing this job for more than twenty years now. There is one thing I am constantly reminded of, and that can be summarized as follows:

I really, really like teaching, and there are few joys that compare to that of working with appreciative and receptive students.

It started way back when I was an Associate Instructor for Intro to Linguistics back at Indiana University in the late 1990s, and it has never gone away. Other teachers know what I mean: there is only one way to keep your views fresh and to stay rooted in the real world, and that is through our students. I don't often need reminders of this beautiful symbiosis, but when I do, it's at my fingertips. I have a file on my computer called "boost," and every now and again, if I am having a bad day, I open it up and read grateful words from previous students. I have a file of memories, too, of those teaching moments when the world outside the classroom seems suspended, and there you are with your students and the material, and nothing else matters. I also have a few physical reminders: 2022 marks the third time that I was bestowed the honor of being voted teacher of the year by students in my home subject at the University of Helsinki. Normally, teachers who receive this honor are invited to a winter party hosted by the students, in which the teacher receives some gifts and gives a speech. I was not able to attend that party in December because it happened to fall on the same weekend as my mother's funeral.

I was supposed to attend a different party this past week, a party commemorating the 51st anniversary of the English students' union. Here, too, I was meant to give a speech to the students, thanking them for the honor of being named teacher of the year in 2022. I unfortunately also had to cancel my attendance at this party because I found myself in line for a long-awaited operation (nothing serious, and I am doing fine).

Two of my colleagues from the English unit at the University of Helsinki, Dr. Nely Keinänen and Dr. Howard Sklar, were generous enough to attend the party and represent me to the students. Both of them have been previous recipients of the same award, so I was in good hands. Nely read a prepared speech on my behalf, and Howard played and sang an original song on his guitar. I appreciate their willingness to attend the party and represent us teachers. A few days before the event, the three of us sat down and discussed our role. Here is the speech I wrote as a result of that discussion, which Nely read at the English students' 51st anniversary party.

Dear students and guests, 

Congratulations, SUB, for your 51st anniversary! I would much rather be with you tonight than doing what I am currently doing. I am currently feeling rather uncomfortable. It is kind of the same feeling that I get every time I prepare to walk into a classroom, big or small, even after 25 years of doing the job of teaching. I get a grip of anxiety in my chest every time, just before class, which melts away the second I start talking, ease into my material, see your faces, and sense and hear your responses to the learning we are doing. It’s a rush, every time.  Part of my own release of discomfort is knowing that my job is to make you comfortable in the classroom, comfortable enough to trust me, trust your fellow students, and trust yourself and your ability to take on new ideas. 

And then there are the times when my job is to make you slightly uncomfortable, to challenge your ways of thinking, to let you know that there is more, or that what is obvious or even what you have taken to be true your entire life is not necessarily the whole story, or even part of the story. That’s a joy, but it’s also a source of great discomfort, a challenge taken up between us. And that is how you learn. We are not here to affirm what you think you already know, but to make you … uncomfortable. 

I don’t think you students always recognize the role you play in this process. We teachers, we try to keep up with what is happening in our field, we try to respond to social changes, bit by bit, but it comes into our worlds slowly, in a more detached way. You play an enormous and necessary role in making us uncomfortable in our own position as a bearers of knowledge. Thank you for bringing up issues like pronouns and name changes and whether or not it is ever justified to use any “n” word, and, if so, in what contexts. Thank you for this and so many things. Thank you for making us uncomfortable in our own knowledge.

Earlier this week, I was teaching about secular individualism in a class. Secular individualism is an ideology that prevails especially in the United States. This view uplifts the notion of the individual and that person’s opportunities and promise. According to secular individualism, the ”true self” is something to be discovered--it has no race, no gender, no secular beliefs, and no limits through socioeconomic class or background. This is what makes it possible for the U.S. to be, in common mythology, “the land of dreams,” “the place where you can be anyone and do anything.” Clearly, this myth applies more to those who have privilege that than those who do not. 

The notion of secular individualism made me think of a discussion I had earlier this week with two of my colleagues, Nely and Howard, when we were talking about this event tonight and reflected on our experiences as your teachers. What is it, we wondered, that causes students to respond the way they do to our teaching style? The three of us contemplated that, other than the fact that we are all American, we don’t have very much in common. The common thread, if any, is that we all three of us share this specific American vantage point of you: secular individualism. We see each of you as unique individual, not as a group. We see each of you as a possibility, an opportunity, a unique set of skills, a unique learning experience. Our other colleagues probably do this, too, but for us as Americans, it is built into our ethos. There is no “group”, there is a collection of individuals.

The combination of discomfort and individualism is an important one in the classroom. Some of my most cherished teaching moments stem from this combination, the moments when a student in the class somehow dares to confront their discomfort and spotlight themselves as an individual in the classroom context. This can manifest in many forms, for example the student who brought a guitar and sang Bon Jovi songs in the Spoken English class. Or the many students who have experiences outside the mainstream and dare to bring those experiences as relevant examples into our classroom space. Normally what happens in these situations is that their initial discomfort is transformed into something that becomes almost like a sacred, shared pact, an appreciation and empathy that couldn’t come from any textbook or piece of literature. Confronting the discomfort, transforming it, sharing it, is what leads to the most memorable learning experiences.

The same is true for your teachers. There are definitely times when our own discomfort can be transformed, and the best examples of this are when it is clear that you see us not as a teacher, but as a unique individual. I have experienced many moments like this, but a memory that stands out in my mind is when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. It might sound strange, but that felt like one of the worst days of my life. I couldn’t stop crying, and I had to teach a class that afternoon. From the moment I walked in the classroom, the students were entirely sympathetic and understanding. It was clear that day that I was the one who had entered a safe space. The students treated me as a person, not a teacher, and we openly shared our discomfort. My discomfort that day was transformed into a teaching experience I will never forget. This never would have happened if I had followed through on my initial instinct that morning, which was to stay in bed and cancel all my teaching. I had to confront my insecurity and discomfort in order to have this beautiful memory.

Let’s make a toast to our continued discomfort. Of trusting and valuing each other enough to bring ourselves as individuals into the learning experience. Here is to many more transformational moments.  

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