The Real Lessons that Take Place in a Classroom

Why it feels strange to be called a teacher when you’re always the one being taught

As a Maths teacher, I’m not supposed to have favourites, but I’ll admit: eight is my favourite number.

There’s a reason for this – some of my most memorable students have been eight-year-olds.

While training to be a teacher, I met a remarkably wise and wonderful child. Thanks to him and several others, my memories of some pretty difficult months are not limited to endless lesson-planning in my bedroom and the struggle to figure out exactly what some of my supervisors expected a ‘good’ lesson to look like.

But back to the child who was more of a grown-up than I. We had conversations about his love of books and he patiently spent some time explaining his attempt to solve a Maths problem that I struggled with. He mentioned to me that he’d recently been reading about relativity.

The only thing I know about relativity is that it kind of rhymes with nativity.

What amazes me most is that this child was never overbearing in the classroom. I saw him work alongside his classmates with care and consideration, encouraging their participation in a group instead of simply taking over a project. When he responded to a question, he never did so in a bored, know-it-all voice, instead offering his answers as just one additional suggestion among the rest.

This child was clearly unique in his academic ability and regard for others. He is not, however, unique is his ability to teach us. Those of us who have spent any time with children now there is plenty they can exemplify to us, including enthusiasm, generosity, perseverance and friendship.

Five years after getting my teaching degree, I don’t remember much about the exact lessons I taught.

I do, however, remember, the student the child who came up to me to excitedly share the fact that he’d made up a song about a sharpener. Yes, that’s funny. But it also made me think: if a sharpener can be exciting, so can many other things in life.

I’m reminded of the second-graders who made it clear that hugging is a completely acceptable way to show your affection for someone, even if you’ve known them for less than a week.

I can still picture an entire classroom erupting into spontaneous, heartfelt applause when a student with autism who often found it difficult to communicate her thoughts came up with an answer to a question.

I learnt that you can make friends in about six seconds when a five-year old girl I’d never met before smilingly and spontaneously informed me what her special nickname for one of the teaching assistants was. She said this to me in a matter-of-fact-tone as she walked along the school corridor, as though we had known each other for years.

More recently, it’s also been made clear to me that children are capable of hard things, like swallowing their pride. One of the students I tutor can find it difficult to control his frustration when he is disappointed. But every time he spends part of a lesson in a sullen, withdrawn mood, by the end of our time together, he is ready to offer a sincere apology. This is something I’m not sure I would have done at his age — and I was prone to sulking myself.

We think wisdom comes only with age, but it’s a function of any kind of life experience. I’ve had several students who voiced their appreciation for the way I explained something simply because they knew it would help me to feel valued. I admire their empathy and kindness they show through simple acts like this; those who say teenagers are inconsiderate may have just not had the time to get to know enough of them.

I’m still touched by their friendly smiles as they welcome me into their homes when they would much rather be putting the final touches on an Instagram post and by the valiant and persistent efforts of those who can’t really stand Maths, much less endure a teacher scrutinizing their answers in a one-on-one session.

Week after week, I’m reminded of their courage by the cheerful little girl who has been put in the ‘lower’ Maths group at school, but will still turn to me surprisingly often and say, “I think I’m up for a challenge.”

So you see: being called Miss D and finding myself in a position of authority never sat very well with me.

I was always the one learning lessons that would last a lifetime.

Originally published at

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