On Being a Cool Teacher

I was not a cool kid. 

I conducted my high school and college life on the fringe of popularity. I did not know the right thing to say at the right time; I certainly was not funny or spontaneous; I was neither strikingly beautiful nor impressively fashionable, and I was far too scrupulous–or at the very least too cautious–to claim a place for myself among the cool crowd. 

I hold nothing against my cooler peers. I am sure that had God willed me to be more adventurous or more witty, I would have eagerly joined with the crowd.

That is not to say I condone all behavior of all cool kids; human nature makes it such that established popularity tends to promote vanity and selfishness, and that the desire to achieve status among our peers tends to bring out the very worst in us. However, coolness itself is the topic for another day.

Here, I want to talk about teachers and the role that they play in coolness. 

As a student, sometimes, if I felt left out or on my own, I would look to teachers for some shared sentiment or regard that was not based upon my popularity because I expected that teachers would live by a higher principle than “approve when it brings you approval”: put another way,  I expected teachers to act entirely independently from any standard of coolness. Sometimes, however, I was shockingly disappointed. 

In such moments, I discovered what I would later discover again as a teacher: far from being immune to the pressures of social dynamics and desiring approval, teachers are actually highly susceptible. I am deeply sympathetic to the teacher who wants to be liked by the students. Partly, this is because I know how difficult it is to be a teacher and how discouraging it is to be there for your students only to find out that they are not there for you. Partly, this is because a desire to be liked by the students shows an awareness on the part of the teacher that is necessary to the profession: the greatest teachers, I believe, are keenly cognizant of students’ needs, ideas, and attitudes–and such awareness goes hand in hand with sensitivity to the students’ attitudes toward the teachers themselves.

However, if we as teachers enter the classroom believing that we need to be cool in order to be liked, and if we aim consciously or subconsciously to act according to the rules of coolness, and if we connect best and most with the cool kids, then our behavior is affirming a lie–namely, that coolness matters and is an important goal in life.

If, by contrast, we enter the classroom as wise and thoughtful individuals who seek only one thing, that is, to love what is good, and who actively seek commonality with all our students and quietly refrain from joining in the unspoken contests of the day, and who establish great honor for cool and uncool students alike in our classrooms, then our teaching is affirming the truth that coolness is a very little and insignificant thing indeed, and that there is joy–not in being cool or in being uncool or in defying coolness–but in loving what is good, regardless of the pressures around us. 

In so doing, we will probably be very well-liked–not cool, but we will be better respected than the cool teachers and more widely appreciated. Such is an irony of life, that aiming for good alone often brings about the very thing that we had been tempted to aim for instead, and which, had we aimed for it exclusively, would have led us into a marsh of lies and discontent.