One of the things some teachers say when we’re talking about our own significance in the classroom is that “teachers are furniture.”  What we mean by that is that students come into the classroom, and they expect certain things will be there – the tables are arranged in a circle or in rows, the chairs are by the tables, the teacher is somewhere in the front of the room, there’s a projector hanging from the ceiling.  That’s the expectation, and that’s how it always is. Similarly to how you probably don’t greet your chair when you sit in it, most students don’t really greet the teacher when they come into the room. The teachers are kind of just… there.

I don’t mean to be cynical about this or cranky about it.  It’s just the way that things are. I think this is why students are so amazed to see their teachers walking down a sidewalk or shopping in the supermarket.  It’s like finding your dining room table in someone else’s house. That would be weird. You would wonder how it got there. You wouldn’t be entirely sure how to talk about it.

And it’s not the students’ fault that they develop this mode of thinking about their teachers this way; we set them up to think about us this way. When school follows an industrial model where students learn History in the History classroom, and then a bell rings and they move to a new space where they learn Math in the Math classroom, they are being taught to segment their lives.

This segmenting of their lives is also helps to explain a really weird phenomenon that teachers have noticed for decades: it can be super easy for a student to write fluently and critically in their English classroom, and then they walk down the hall to the Science room and now they’re writing stilted, incoherent prose in their Science lab report.  They live their lives in chunks, and we teach them to live their lives in chunks. And then we expect them to de-chunk their lives on their own.

So an English teacher is just one facet of the English chunk of their lives.  They do Englishy things in the English room, and the English teacher cares about English stuff.  And it’s totally normal for students to be fond of their teachers, to feel like their teachers really care about them, and to want to work hard for their teachers. But the expectation is that that English teacher stays in that room. When the student leaves to go do Sciencey things, the English teacher does not follow.

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There are a few ways to shift student thinking in this regard.  One that I have seen work really well is to travel with kids. Once they see you in this whole new context – waiting around at the airport, eating meals at their table, getting cranky when you stay up past your bedtime – it can dawn on them that you’re more than just a piece of furniture.  Sometimes they’ll even open up about other parts of their lives to the teacher, and the teacher can start to see them as more than an English student or a Math student. Travel is great for that.

Another way to break up the chunking of student lives is one that I’ve only been trying out recently: bringing in someone else to be the judge of the work that students are going to produce.  This shifts the focus of the class because the role that the teacher normally has is disrupted a little bit. If you find an expert from the real world who can be a critic of the student’s work, then the teacher-student relationship is no longer adversarial; it’s collaborative.

Here’s an example: in my Science Fiction intensive that I’m teaching in May, we’ve asked a local sci-fi writer and publisher to come and talk to the students about the genre, what makes good sci-fi, what makes a good story, and how someone can actually become a professional writer.  He’s going to make an offer to the students that they write a 1500-word sci-fi short story for him, and he will give them some feedback on it and consider it for publication. So this is a really cool opportunity! They have someone who makes his living discovering young writers, who publishes his own work, and who really knows what he’s talking about.  

This challenge has opportunities that they just wouldn’t have if all they were doing was submitting their work to their teacher. There’s a real reader who wants to read their work, and there’s potential here for real success. This guy isn’t furniture – he lives an actual life out in the world. And after he talks to them for an hour or so about this challenge, he leaves the building.  Because, you know, he lives and works elsewhere.

This kind of messes with the kids.  Some of them find this really uncomfortable, because they don’t know this guy.  They don’t know what he’s looking for when he says he wants a good, original, well-crafted story.  So they look around at each other, a bit bewildered. And then they look at me, the teacher. And that’s when I say, “How can I help?”

This is a totally different dynamic.  The kids start asking me things like, “How do you develop a realistic character?” and “Is this imagery vivid?”  They also start looking to each other to read their stories and give them feedback. And any time one of them hands their story in to me, I really can’t tell them whether it’s “good enough.”  I’m not the one deciding that. All they can do is help them to get better.

Furthermore, the Science teacher down the hall is now a resource for these kids who might want to figure things out Science stuff, like what happens to time when you approach the speed of light or what Jupiter’s atmosphere is made of.  The History teacher has become an important person to talk to, because sci-fi is sometimes about historical and social commentary, and it could be really helpful to learn more about colonialism so that it can be the focus of this story the student is working on.  The Art teacher is now fair game to ask for help because a student has the idea to do her story as a graphic novel.

At Hawken, students are really good about being polite and considerate, so I don’t say that “teachers are furniture” with any malice.  This is the only school I have worked at where students thank me on their way out the door at the end of every class. (Seriously, every class.  It’s weird.) My beef is less with the students, who are lovely, and more with the system that we’ve put them into, which is a relic of the industrial era.

I had a mentor who gave me some advice when I was first teaching and having trouble with classroom management.  He told me, “The kids do what we tell them to do.” And it took me a while to figure out that what he meant was that I was giving students lots of non-verbal instructions, like it’s okay to talk when I’m giving instructions because I didn’t stop them and tell them to be quiet; or it’s fine to blow off homework assignments because I would let them make it up at the end of the semester.  I needed to learn to tell them what I really wanted by articulating and sticking to clear boundaries, and refusing to send the message that I didn’t really care about their bad behaviors.

It’s the same thing with teacher-student relationships, I think.  The kids will have the relationships with their teachers that we set up for them to have.  If we really want them to think about their teachers as people, then we have to set school up so that students and teachers interact as people.  If we want them to think about English in the Science classroom, we need to set up projects that require them to think about English in the Science classroom.  And if we want them to think of us as more than furniture, it really helps if we redefine the teacher’s role so that it’s less like furniture.

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Dan O’Connor

Dan O’Connor

I graduated from the College of Wooster in 2002, and went on to get a Masters in the Teaching of English from Columbia University, Teachers College. I teach Humanities here at Hawken. One of the big reasons I went into teaching high school is that I had a crummy time as a high school student myself, so I want to redesign a learning environment that is enjoyable and enriching at the same time. School works best, I think, when students choose to learn, so I like to give my students meaningful choices in the classroom that they can make every day.