The film industry has led us to believe that the best teachers are the quirkiest. The outsiders. The misunderstood jesters who make us stand on our desks, or the shrewd upper-middle-class educators who tame inner city classrooms with nothing but tousled haircuts and sharp tongues. We are encouraged to admire the unorthodox types whose wide-eyed virtues are offset by a school administration that is always married to outdated policies and sometimes borderline barbaric.
When we’re sitting on the couch with our bowl of hot popcorn, we like teachers who stick it to the man.
But I realized something this afternoon as I began calculating final grades for the undergraduates in my survey of children’s literature course. I realized that while, in the abstract, I admire teachers and professors who bend the rules — because really, I love Dead Poet’s Society –I really admire the mean ones. I like professors who threaten expulsion at the slightest hint of plagiarism. I like those who aren’t afraid to stick to merciless attendance policies and who can hand back, without flinching, writing assignments dripping with red pen gore.
I don’t mean the senselessly cruel or irresponsible teachers, but those who have seemingly thorny exteriors tempered by an open-office-door policy. A touch of hostility balanced by a willingness to help.
I’m sure that my love of mean teachers stems in part from my nerd-dom. I always did my work on time and followed the rules, and I appreciated professors who punished the sniveling, excuse-giving slackers who submitted late, poorly organized papers filled with irresponsible research on uninteresting topics. But I think I love mean teachers more because they want you to earn it. They respect you too much to hand out cookies and movies in class and easy As. In college, when I finally got to the place where I had friendly and constructive relationships with these professors, I felt like I had arrived. And then I went back to the library.
All of this is a preface to one of Carrots’ Summer Projects: Project Mean Teacher. I can be a total softie. I am sometimes a marshmallow in the classroom. This is a problem. I need to figure out a way to be the sort of mean teacher that inspires hard work, attention in class, and a little bit of fear. I have my successful strategies, but they can always use some polishing. My friend Sasha has volunteered to give me a few new ideas about establishing my unbending and Mean Teacher authority on the first day of class, and in the meantime I’m going to be tweaking airtight syllabi and devising thoughtful but fair responses to awkward student encounters. And boy oh boy, after this semester I’m drafting an “email etiquette” handout to distribute on Day One.
As I’m writing this I’m wondering if it’s ill-advised to discuss my classroom challenges online. What if a potential employer finds The Blog? But I think it’s responsible and important to reflect on my pedagogy at the end of the semester — to measure my performance against those professors I admire most — and to formulate a plan to begin bridging the gap.
What? You need an extension? The printer in the lab is out of ink? You left the assignment sheet in your ex-boyfriend’s dorm room? In the famous words of my favorite high school English teacher, poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.
[How did I sound? Convincing?]