What Makes A Professor Cool

Thousands of teachers are about to begin their first day in the classroom. Soon they’ll face a crowd of teenagers, with no fucking idea what to expect except worst case scenarios based on horror stories. I have plenty of those. For example, a friend of mine had an entire class walk out on her during a slide presentation once. She got nervous and choked up. Some frat boy said “fuck this shit,” and walked out. His girlfriend followed him, and so on until the room had emptied. The poor girl cried herself to sleep over frozen yogurt and wine. That person wasn’t me, I swear. Seriously. Fuck, you think it was me now, don’t you? Fine. Whatever.

New teachers are living in panic mode now. More than anything, they worry if their students will like them. That’s the main thing. These teachers have over-planned their syllabi, even scripted their entire first week. It’s so adorable. That was me, a handful of years ago. I spent the summer brushing up on Internet slang and listening to the radio so I’d know all the latest music. I even listened to the college radio station for two months, to learn what the hipsters liked. Do you know how fucking hard that was? First impressions mattered to me at the time, and I wanted them to think I was cool.

“So I was listening to NPR the other day...” That’s how my first day monologue opened — a funny story about something I heard on the news. My friends all thought it was hilarious. I can’t remember the story, something about Mitt Romney. You see, somehow I developed the notion that a teacher should act like a talk show host, at least for the first few minutes.

You know where this is going...The monologue bombed. Why? Because none of my students listened to NPR. Those fuckers didn’t even know what NPR stood for. When I’d finished, my class just sat there in silence watching my ironic smirk fade. Finally, one of them raised a hand and asked, “Is that your name, Miss Romney?”

“You think my last name is Romney? Um, no.” That comment didn’t even make sense. But that’s what my students were hearing from me: blah blah blah blah MISS ROMNEY…blah blah blah blah. And so we began going over the syllabus, like I would every single week for the rest of the semester.

Next, a writing prompt. That was bound to get them excited. Right? Not so much, because some of them didn’t have pencils, or paper. One of them muttered, “Didn’t know we’d be doing shit on the very first day.” He put the emphasis on the very last word. Interesting choice of intonation, Mr. Aldridge. Worthy of admiration.

The topic of my writing and class discussion — Holocaust Denial. It had been in the news a lot lately on account of the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Auto-toning was popular that year, so I showed them an auto-toned parody of Ahmadinejad. I thought my choice of topic was genius. The controversial topic of Holocaust denial was going to send the class into a raucous debate, and I was going to step in as the teacher to mediate and stress the importance of rationale discourse. I’d been reading about how Emory students were in an utter frenzy over Holocaust denial. But it was my mistake. I was teaching at a state school, not an elite private university. Nobody had explained to me there was a difference. Instead of igniting a fierce dialogue over the First Amendment, my ideas flopped out onto the floor like a dead fish. Of course, I should’ve already guessed that if my students didn’t listen to NPR then they wouldn’t know who Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was. Some of them also told me they weren’t sure what I meant by The Holocaust. A couple of them tried to help out: “You know, Anne Frank went there.” Those were my shining stars, I could already tell.

The debate fizzled. The general consensus: “Maybe the Holocaust happened. Maybe it didn’t. Who cares? It was like 200 years ago.” My dream of becoming the cool rock star professor died that day. I’m just lucky I didn’t have any frat hats in my class that semester.

The first couple of weeks went about like that, until I stumbled across an important realization: My students did care about things, they just weren’t the things I personally cared about. Ultimately, that didn’t matter. I wasn’t a history teacher, or a political science teacher. I was an English teacher. Sad as it sounds, teaching teenagers the importance of The Holocaust wasn’t my job. Neither was selling them on NPR. Gradually, I learned how to build my lessons and discussions around the things that mattered to them: the cost of tuition and textbooks, their anxiety over getting a job. One girl’s parents were trying to convince her to drop out of school and learn how to run the family restaurant chain. Should she? The economy was in shambles, so was higher education even worth the time and money?

Around that time, I remember walking past a friend’s classroom. I overheard him say shit like, “I’m shooting off motherfucking fireworks for you guys, and you just sit there. Why?” Yeah, we new teachers didn’t understand what made us so fucking lame.

Eventually, I repaired the damage of the first two weeks. My students actually started referring to me as cool by fall break. But my coolness had nothing to do with what music I listened to, what cultural references I understood, or whether I had a Pinterest page. They didn’t care about that. In fact, the less I talked about myself, the better. They did take interest in what I thought counted as cultural literacy. Fuck, I was way off. On the upside, my “old school” knowledge interested them. Yes, I could actually remember a brief time before the Internet, The War on Terror, and the Great Recession. My students also started to like me because I actually gave a fuck about them, and what they wanted to talk about. I stopped judging them, and just worked within their world and helped them write papers about it. So if you’re a new teacher, there’s only one rule. Be yourself. Jesus, that sounds lame. Does everything boil down to that? I guess so. Sorry.

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