I am not your friend—now let’s get to work

By Martin Hackworth

Students – I am not your friend. I think that as a teacher I am reasonably knowledgeable, fair-minded and a congenial enough guy that you should not find our time together to be bleak, burdensome or completely unappealing. But I am not your friend. You need to understand at the outset what our relationship is all about.

First of all, and I mean no contempt or disrespect here, I am mostly unconcerned about your opinion of me. A quarter of a century in the classroom has taught me that there is about a 1:1 correspondence between grades and student evaluations. All I have to do to win the popularity contest known as teacher of the year is to give everyone an “A” and ignore cheating. No thanks. The second thing that you should know is that I do not stand before you every day in class just because I love to teach. That concept is a bunch of malarkey peddled by recruiters and administrators attempting to justify their high income-to-performance ratio with a contact buzz. I am in a classroom because it is my profession. Please do not misunderstand me. I like what I do a lot – well enough to have done it for 25 years. But if I were motivated solely because I “loved” teaching, I might not be so great at the parts of my job that I did not “love” so much, the important things down in the weeds, and that is the antithesis of professionalism. Teaching is not my hobby, it’s not something I’ve dabbled in as a dilettante, it’s not what I do for fun – it’s what I do for real, and that is to your benefit.

Since we aren’t friends, what exactly is the nature of our relationship? Two words: howdy, pardner. You and I are partners in the educational process.. I bring the knowledge, you bring the elbow grease and desire to learn. It’s about that simple. My job is to show up each day, to know what I am talking about, to know how to communicate my knowledge effectively to you, and to evaluate your progress as fairly as I can. Your job is to show up with a desire to learn and some semblance of a work-ethic. All you have to do is bring those two things with you each day and I will take care of the rest. Here, unfortunately, is where misunderstandings begin to occur. My job is to help you to learn, not to force-feed you, not to spoon-feed you and definitely not to hold your hand. My job is to show you the way and guide you through the places where you are likely to need some help; then to tell you, straight up, how you are doing. The rest is on you. I am not a nanny and I am most definitely not a counselor. I understand that life is filled with pitfalls that may affect your ability to learn. I get it, I really do. And I am not unsympathetic. I’m just not the vessel into which you should pour your problems. My wife and son are both students, and when they need TLC, or a shoulder to cry on, they come to me, not to their teachers.

Back to that popularity thing. If I were holding a bad hand I’d be a lot more into your opinion of me. But I am not. Every year former students of mine go on to be doctors, pharmacists, scientists, engineers, lawyers, or enter other solid professional careers. They get there because they worked their fannies off, learned and achieved at high levels, not because they polished any apples. They earned their success – and for that I am, indeed, thrilled. In some cases, I did go above and beyond the call of classroom duty by vouching for them. When I recommend someone for a slot in a program or a job, friendship’s got nothing to do with it; how the value of my word is perceived has got everything to do with it. If you get a good grade, a recommendation or even a pat on the back from me it is because you earned it – not just because I like you. I evaluate myself on what you achieve, not on whether you think that I’m a swell guy or not. My principle interest in you is when you leave school and are looking for a job, or years later down the road when you have a family and responsibilities and are set with a good career and a happy, successful life. If I played a part in that, I did my job. Then, perhaps, we may allow ourselves the luxury of friendship.

But in the meantime we’ve got a lot to do. Let’s get to work.

Award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist and the editor of MotorcycleJazz.com.