It’s always a little awkward when you compare teaching and dating. People start to fidget and offer an uncomfortable courtesy laugh. But teachers, bear with me, and try not to spill your Folgers.
I noticed this parallel last year, when one of my favorite students in the world came to me when my room was empty. It was one of those rare, silent times in a day.
“Boll, I need to ask you a question.”
“What’s up, man? Shoot.”
He stuttered in a way that that was slightly more uncomfortable than usual for him, so I knew he wasn’t asking me about an essay or an assignment.
“Well, it’s more that I need advice.”
I prodded a bit more as he fumbled through his words before he finally got out his request.
“I need some advice on how to get girls to like me. Can you help with that?”
Obviously, this student needed more help than I thought. Not only did he not know how to talk to a girl he liked, but he also thought this awkward 34-year-old white guy who tries to teach English in his neighborhood high school was a good place to start. I was never very smooth with the ladies, but I was honored by his bad judgement.
I told the kid that I thought he was super cool. But he was more the kind of cool that was going to crush his 30s. The kind of cool that would win grad school. Sweater vests, ties with jeans, and conversations about climate change are the kind of thing that coffee dates and wine parties are made of, but they might leave him hanging in high school. He was a hopeless romantic in a Snapchat world.
And I had some 34-year-old advice. I told him that every person I ever met likes to talk about themselves. So if you are talking to a girl you like, try to ask a lot of questions and let her talk a lot. If you are interested, let her know and ask more questions. I couldn’t promise he would magically be the most popular kid in school, but I could promise people would like being around him.
Generally—and this is not only true about romance—people are drawn to people who are more interested in others than themselves.
In this vein, I think teachers need to be better daters. Our students should like to be around us most of the time. The advice I gave the sweater vest kid is really the same advice I would give to any new teacher trying to find their way in this job: We should ask a lot of questions and listen a lot. We should want our students to like us, but not because we awkwardly talk about rap music and basketball. Our students should like us because we seem genuinely interested in their lives, their interests, and their frustrations.
Teachers, like any other segment of society, can be inclined toward bad judgments and associations. We tend to assume that the “cool teacher” means that teacher’s class must be really easy. It comes with a certain dress code, style, and dialect that students find relevant. People say things like “I don’t need my students to like me” in the teachers’ lounge and that seems to earn them a badge of honor. It’s like we’ve been trained to respect the hard ass, and judge the teacher that students actually enjoy. It makes no sense.
But I’ve seen the “cool teacher” come in all ages, shape, colors, and sizes. Their styles look more grandpa than GQ, their cultural references are usually 10 years too late, and they might be the farthest thing from smooth. Of course, I’ve also seen cool teachers that are really cool. That seem to fit the stereotype a little more closely, but have classes that students say is the hardest in the school.
Regardless of their style, students consistently say the same things about teachers they like: They care about what I’m saying, they ask questions, they seem to enjoy their job, and they don’t judge me based on what they see or hear. It doesn’t matter if they listen to the same music, or watch sports, or look like a model. It just matters that they listen to their students and ask questions about their lives.
I realize this might sound sappy, but my advice for teachers is to try to get students to like you. Not because you want to be the cool teacher, but because you want your students to learn. They are way more likely to really learn from someone that they like. And from someone that they think likes them.
Teachers, put on your outfits that were only stylish 15 years ago. Your loose-fitting JC Penney khakis, that new dress shirt you got at Kohl’s, and those athletic socks with brown leather shoes. Share your love of those awful moisture-wicking polo shirts with your school name emblazoned on the chest. Slide your feet into your favorite clogs that you always claim have great orthotic support. Then, walk into the classroom with a confidence in knowing that your success isn’t based on your hipster haircut or your perfectly-fitted skinny jeans. Look your students in their eyes and ask them how they are doing.
Then, listen. You’ll be amazed at what happens. ♦