school-clipartAre you teaching students or children — or both?

You know how you went into teaching because you love kids, you love your subject matter, and you love the idea of forging in your students the same passion and excitement for literature and math and science and politics that you feel?

And you know how there’s always one kid (or, alas, a large group of kids) who pops your bubble on a regular basis by saying, “I don’t know” or “That’s too complicated for me” or simply falls silent and stubbornly, unfathomably, waits you out? And you find yourself acting more like a parent than a teacher, doling out consequences and checking your anger and feeling yourself rushing way too rapidly towards burnout?

Why didn’t anyone tell you this was how it was going to be?

One possible answer is that people tend to think that teachers are going to be working with students: kids who know the difference between school and home, between gaming consoles and desks, between hanging out and learning.

That is, most teachers’ dream is to work with people who have committed to adopting the roles and responsibilities┬áthe student identity requires. Roles and responsibilities like listening in class; doing homework; respecting the difference between activities you do with your buddies and activities you do in a school; thinking; practicing respect; letting yourself get excited about ideas; delaying gratification; following instructions; etc.

But the truth is that many teachers are not necessarily working with students, or people who understand and embrace these roles and responsibilities. When that’s not the case — when teachers are not working with students — they are working with a different animal all together. They’re working with children.

Students, I propose, engage in learning and growing intellectually. They’re gathering information, making sense of it, organizing it, embellishing it, making connections, being creative, trying new things, learning from mistakes. They’re forging increasingly mature (one hopes) relationships with content and with the roles of learner, thinker, and knower, an endeavor that requires certain (usually supremely enjoyable) acts and responses from their teachers.

Children, in contrast, are still working on human relationships. They’re developing as people, not as intellectuals, and as such require sometimes unexpected and often highly resented acts and responses from their teachers. Where students might need limits to be erased so they can explore new territory, children generally need very firm limits to be set and reinforced. Where students raise their hands with the answer to every question, children need to be mirrored, to see accurate reflections of themselves, both of what they’re capable of and what they’re not making any effort to do. Where students might question a grade because they’re not sure how to make it better, children question the teacher’s integrity, brilliantly exemplifying the child’s dependence on an authority figure as an external model that can eventually be internalized.

The bad news is that many teachers, it turns out, hate teaching children! And who can blame them? After all, shouldn’t parents be raising children so teachers can raise students????

The good news is that, while the demands of teaching students might differ markedly from the demands of teaching children, it’s all teaching. Learning is development. Period. It’s just a question of what type of development a kid is ready for (and, of course, kids can zigzag between developmental needs dizzyingly, even shifting from being a student to being a child with no warning). Allowing oneself to say, “Ah! Here is a student today” or “OK, today I’m working with a child who is teaching me about her needs” might help teachers accept the inevitable: that the kids in their classes are trying to develop, and they need teachers’ help if that development is to proceed healthily and productively.