Although this was not the purpose of our visit, it was a nice reminder to see how other schools work, to observe the formal relationships between the students and the teachers, to see the kids in uniform, to see how traditional private schools are structured. It was sort of a breath of fresh air that put my life on campus in perspective.
Frankly, it made me more thankful than ever to be at my relaxed, tightly-knit school for low-income students. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I like our system better. (Well, the informal aspect of our system.) Here's why.
My students here call me HollyAnne because that is my name. My friends call me HollyAnne, my family calls me HollyAnne, my coworkers and employers call me HollyAnne. The students know me the same way that everyone else does, because I am the same person in all of these settings. I do not change my personality around the students. That would be a. a lot of work for me and b. unrealistic for them. They do not have to guess how I act during the weekends, or how I would react if I were to get extremely mad. They know the real me; there is no formal facade for them to try to break. (Not only is this less effort for me, but it also means that the students ask me fewer rude questions and spend less time trying to push my buttons.)
My students come over to my house (I live on campus) because I live there. My friends, my family, and, on rare occasions, my employers come to my house. The students come to my house the same way everyone else does; I invite them over like I would anyone else. They have cooked in my kitchen, worn my sweatshirts on cold days, and cried into my couch cushions. Not only does this help my students understand me better, but it also shows them ways of life or traditions that are different than the ones that they experience in their own homes. In the same way that study abroad and the resulting interaction with cultures is a positive opportunity for growth, so is seeing the everyday lives of other people in their own community.
My students are treated the same way as my family, friends, coworkers, and employers. I do not classify them according to age in the same way that I do not classify my friends by race or economic status. In my opinion, treating individuals with equal cognitive ability as lesser because of their age qualifies as age discrimination. I do not think that any sort of discrimination is appropriate in a teacher-student relationship (or any relationship, for that matter). Furthermore, by treating the students as equals, I am asserting their inherent value.
We do our students a disservice when we are distant and "adult-ish" because that promotes the idea that adults are somehow different. I've spent my entire life thinking that adults are somehow superior to younger folks, only to realize (at the age of 24 -- since apparently now I'm an adult too) that adults are just as petty, hurtful and self-centered as children are, if not more so. Why do we perpetuate this idea that adults are a different class of being? What is purpose? Have we found there to be positive results in this formalized system that exceed those of informality?
Some might argue that this informal approach doesn't give our students the chance to learn how to interact with respect and deference with their elders. Quite the contrary, I think that our students act with more respect towards their elders because they deeply understand what it is like to be an adult...because of their relationships with their teachers. Adults for them are not far-off, untouchable idols, but real human beings with emotions and needs.
Fundamentally, our informal system supports my decision to treat students as valued, albeit less experienced, equals: it gives me the freedom to behave as myself (thus affirming my own value as an individual) and it shows the students the type of respect that I hope they will emulate in the world beyond our campus.