I remember being so relieved when I had a professor who would listen to my dumb questions, then not only would she answer them, but she had an ability to make me feel like OF COURSE it wasn’t a dumb question, and it was SO GOOD that I asked and she was SO GLAD to be the one to get to explain it to me!
She was my first mentor. The first professor I didn’t just like, but aspired to BE like. The way she taught is actually a prototype for how I teach now. I don’t believe I’m as good a teacher as she is, but the good things are largely stolen from her (and others...I don’t discriminate about people from whom to steal). She taught me about geography, about the middle east, about gender roles, about the global south, about American political systems, about foreign policy, about physical geography, about the Israel-Palestine conflict...and so much more. From her I stole my now-frequent response to a student question, “Hmm. That’s a great question. That would be really interesting for you to look up and tell us what you found!”
The notes I took in her class are by far the most useful thing I’ve taken away from the 16 ½ years* I was educated. I actually remember specific lectures and conversations from her classes, even though they happened almost 15 years ago. Her classes were the only ones for which I actually studied. I mean, I even organised study groups with my classmates.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened if she had been my 6th grade teacher. Or 10th. Or any year before I could legally vote.
I suppose she’s the reason why I don’t shield my students from difficult or painful realities about the world. At a recent team meeting, my colleagues told me that a documentary I show “wasn’t appropriate,” in their view, for our students. It shows people in poverty, some with drug problems. It shows a town where AIDS is responsible for more than half the deaths each year. It shows men being caught fishing illegally and receiving a tree-branch whipping by police officers. It shows a man dying of heat stroke in a matter of a few hours. It shows the civil war in South Sudan, and ISIS in Egypt. It catalogues the life of the people living along the over 4000 miles of the River Nile.
It shows life as it is.
That doesn’t mean I don’t edit out some things - swearing, sexual references, etc. If leaving it in would show a truth about life for someone my students consider to be other, I leave it in. If it doesn’t, I cut it. When we study Gilgamesh, they learn what “harlot” means, because it’s pretty important to the story. When we study The Odyssey, we have to deal with the constant philandering of Odysseus while he still demands perfect chastity of Penelope. When we study Judaism and the Old Testament, we talk about prostitutes, bigamy, incest, murder, and adultery.
It’s so easy, especially when teaching a subject as expansive as History, to fall back on, “Well, I don’t really have the background to talk about that in class.” It’s true for every History teacher. I remember a professor in college telling me that Ancient China was so unfamiliar to him that he was only ever a few pages ahead of us students.
But part of my job is to open my students to other worlds. I may not like the reality of those other worlds, but if I mask it with a glass I’ve blacked out in places, then they miss out on the chance to learn how to imagine others complexly, how to ask questions when they need more light, and how to look at without looking away.
It’s a fine line, and I know sometimes I get the balance wrong. But I would rather my students have the chance to ask me questions about difficult subjects than just rely on them to figure it out for themselves.
So we keep looking at. Not away.
*I skipped 8th grade, finished college in 3.5 years, and did a teaching credential and the beginning of a MA in Education