This is a roadmap of the conversation that follows every time I state that I’m a teacher to a person I meet in a bar, Lyft driver, a family friend, or just about any American adult.
Person: What do you do?
Me: I’m a teacher, I teach at a charter school right now.
Person: Oh wow, what grade?
Me: Third grade.
Person: How old are third graders? Seven? Twelve?
Me: They’re usually nine or ten. It’s a solid age, they’re pretty independent.
Person: That’s awesome. We definitely have to respect our teachers.
The conversations end there and usually feels very flat, glossing over opportunities for the exchange of stories. When I reflect on the richest and most humorous discussions about my profession, they’ve all been with fellow teachers or my family. I often find that the best-case scenario is when people offer trite niceties about how teachers deserve to be respected and the worst-case scenario is, “that’s adorable.” The fact is, people don’t know how to talk about education or to educators.
It is worthwhile to be able to engage with people in all professions in a way that fosters an engaging exchange and develops human connection. The next time you meet a teacher, try asking one of these five questions. They vary in terms of dynamism but each one is sure to conjure a more interesting dialogue than asking about grade levels.
- What is your opinion on high stakes standardized tests?
This is a safe starting point because I guarantee you that every teacher has an opinion. By nature of teaching in a public or charter school, they’re had to proctor and prepare students for these controversial practices. If you’ve like to contribute your thoughts but don’t know how to feel, I’d start by watching Ken Robinson’s infamous TED talk, reading Finnish Lessons 2.0, or reading the Atlantic article Students Should Be Tested More, Not Less. Other education politics issues you can inquire about are budgeting, school administration, common core state standards, or Betsy Devos in general.
- What is your favorite student like?
If they tell you they don’t have one they’re lying. Be prepared to see them light up and probably show you a picture or work sample on their phone. If you ask me this question I will say that my favorite student is a boy with autism who I just found out was making written threats against our dean of culture by saying he would, “moon walk across his stupid face.” Have you ever heard such an incredible threat?
- What’s your favorite standard to teach?
Any teacher will appreciate this one because it is a nod to the underappreciated intellectual planning that we do every day. They likely have a creative, engaging way to present their favorite content. You might even learn something! If you’re in sales or consulting, I would pay attention because teachers are masters of synthesizing complex ideas, presenting them into digestible pieces, and keeping their audience engaged (on a good day, some days we just need our audience to stay in their seats).
- What’s your least favorite standard to teach?
I once asked a high school ELA teacher this and she talked about the how she had to prepare her class to read the rape scene in The Bluest Eye. It opened the door for us to have a meaningful and cathartic conversation about rape culture and the Me Too movement. You might gain an appreciation for the metacognition that teachers have to do when preparing for these standards. How do you inspire a student with autism to invest herself in an abstract concept such as irrational numbers? Will your class retain the properties of soil if you don’t have the money to purchase equipment for labs? How does a white social studies teacher navigate his unit about the Transatlantic Slave Trade in a tactful and culturally responsive manner? Why did Matii run towards the carpet as he was throwing up? These are the questions educators tackle daily.
- Have you ever had a classroom management disaster?
If they say no, they are either lying or have painfully boring students. Motivating 20-30 students to stay on task is an intricate symphony that takes time and layers of differentiation to complete. Every teacher was a new teacher at one point and should have a story about children taking their learning into their own hands. I am proud to report that my middle schools students provided me with a bank of these hilarious stories.