Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Teaching While Female Confession: I'm a Mother-Hen

My recent post on how hard it is for me to cancel my classes because I care quite deeply about "my" kids/students generated quite a lot of discussion and a lot of reassurance, which I found both surprising and deeply comforting. Surprising because of the general academic discourse that takes place about power relationships between professor and students and issues of being labeled unserious as a female academic because you nurture, but deeply comforting because it reinforces the almost instinctive approach I've taken to teaching my entire life. As far back as I can remember, if I've been teaching or coaching, they've been "my" kids. 

I started coaching swimming when was 16, but even before that, I was one of the people the coaches could count on to help with the little kids. I loved swimming, and somehow I knew that nurturing young swimmers was the best way to give back to the sport I loved so much. I took my role personally; I was constantly reprimanded for being too emotional at swim meets, punctuated by panicky outbursts when I thought I had let my swimmers down somehow. Now I'll admit to being a little over-dramatic in my late teen, but many of my co-workers treated lifeguarding as "just" a summer job and their only interest was to keep it. Looking back, I (either wisely or foolishly) didn't care what my supervisors thought of my work; all I cared about was whether or not my kids were a) learning to swim and b) having fun. Looking back, I must have been an absolute nightmare to have on staff. 

This continued on well past when I had left coaching and had begun teaching. When I was just starting my MA, I taught at English Second Language summer "camp" (the director hated that). The kids were with us for three weeks of intense language immersion. I taught a formal class and supervised their newspaper project. My second summer teaching there, one girl was going through a rough period, and one night, she had a nervous breakdown. I knew that there were issues at home and before the break happened I told her, in French, that if she ever needed to talk, she should come to me.

I was the one, then, who held her hand and talked her down that day as we went from hospital to hospital trying to figure out what was wrong. Once her father arrived and we were dismissed from our duties, the director admitted that if it hadn't been for me, the day probably would not have gone as (relatively) smoothly as it did. He didn't know that I had gone through a similar event with a close friend a few years earlier, but it also just came naturally; as with my close friend, I was the one in bed with her while she cried as my other friends tried to find someone to call for real help. Someone needed to take care of them, and I was that person, whether it be for a close friend or student I barely knew.

This has continued on as I have taught and coached; I was the one nagging the college swimmers about their health, their eating, and often the one they confided in. It's a lot harder now because I have more and bigger classes. There is also a distance that is implied in higher education a lot of the times between professor and student. But whenever and however I can, I get to know my students and find ways to let them know that I take their education seriously. It's one of the reasons moving around so much has been so difficult for me; once I get to know, really know, a group of students, I'm gone. I've told my students, even if I'm not teaching here anymore, track me down and email me if you ever need anything. 

I am a mother-hen, for better or for worse, and I always have been. It's who I am as a teacher and a person. For me, it's a strength that I use along with my expertise and experience. No one taught me how to care about "my" students; it just came naturally. You can be sure, though, because I care, I've worked really hard on everything else. Because that's what good teachers do.


  1. Amen Lee! I do the same thing. It's exhausting, but worth it, I think.

  2. I asked my developmental students today if they had ever been encouraged or supported in their writing efforts. Not one of them raised their hands.

    This is why I am a mother-hen.

  3. Hmmm, as a non-mother-hen, I'm conflicted on this one. I see the value of it, certainly, but get frustrated when it's the only model for female teachers -- as Jane Gallup has noted, why is the general pedagogical model erotic for men but motherly for women? My experience was that students expected mothering that I sure as hell wasn't going to give them - I mean, I choose not to be a parent for a reason, you know? Mentoring is possible in many different forms.

    That said, I have relied on friends myself in times of need and been there for people who needed it. It's not that caring itself is wrong, or exclusively feminine in any event.

    So I guess I'd conclude that it's fine to be mother hen, or a father rooster, or a non-parental work mentor, as long as we all get to choose the model that works for us. Also, be sure to take care of yourself, too; the only downside to mother hens I can see is that they sometimes neglect themselves!

  4. Agreed, WorstProfEver. I'm embracing my style, but I am also (perhaps too subtly) encouraging all professors to embrace the type of educator that comes "naturally" to them. I don't want to be the only model, just one (and I do think you provide an excellent counter model, or alternative model in so many ways).

    Today I hit the wall of limitations on my mother-hen style: apathy, indifference, and the idea that my caring will lead to me doing it for them. Ugh. On Wednesday, I'll be telling them that unless they meet me halfway and care themselves, I won't lose any sleep over failing them. It'll be the grade that they earned.


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