The Baggage We Bring to the Classroom

In my biblical interpretation class, we often talk about what we bring to the text when we read the Bible. None of us interprets Scripture in an objective or neutral way; we have pre-understandings and biases, “baggage” from our culture, family history, religious background and experiences that shape the way we interpret.

I think that we carry similar baggage when we come to the lectern. We have a complex matrix of predispositions constantly affecting what we teach, which style we use, how we communicate, and who we connect with in the classroom. In order to become a better teacher each of us has to become aware of our baggage.  As the knowledge of our inclinations grows, so also will our ability to recognize areas for improvement. With this in mind, I want to take inventory of my baggage and explore how this baggage plays out in the classroom. This exploration may feel a bit like a confessional, so I apologize in advance for the unfettered transparency that follows:

  • The sexist suitcase—I realize that in our culture and in many cultures throughout history, sexism has mainly taken the form of a preference for males coupled with a bias against females. My sexism is completely the opposite. In my family growing up, girls seemed to be valued and favored over boys. My aunts and female cousins were dominant, successful, and smart. They garnered most of the attention while my uncles and male cousins were the ones who faded into the background. Although much of my extended family is Mexican, we have been a matriarchal family for many decades, because my grandma was the head of our family. For my whole childhood, then, my family dynamics unconsciously reinforced the idea that girls were more treasured and important not just in our clan but in society. That history, coupled with the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better attitude I have held towards boys since I was young, causes me to favor female students in the classroom. I have to be aware of this when I teach so that I can balance out my tendencies with purposeful efforts to view my students equally. It is a constant battle I face.
  • The Case of the Extrovert—As an extreme “E” extrovert (ENFP on Myers-Briggs), it is difficult for me to think like an introvert. I have a tendency to favor the students who will speak up in class, assuming that they understand the most and work the hardest. However, I have learned from experience that many of my introverts will never say a word in class but will ace tests and write eloquent, thought-provoking papers. I must not let my own personality and proclivities influence the way I interact with my students. In order to fight against my wrong-headed tendency, I try to vary my teaching style and provide activities in class that cater to both introverts and extroverts. If I assign a skit to be performed in class, I will make sure that a part of the process involves behind-the-scenes work that will favor an introvert’s strengths as well. It is one step in the long process toward overcoming the personality baggage I bring to the classroom.
  • The Chaos Carry-on—I function well in chaos. I don’t know if that has to do with my large and loud family, or my preference for high-energy environments, or my fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants personality, or the fact that I am quite far from the type-A personality. Probably all of the above. Because of this, my classes tend to be disorganized flexibly arranged, open to changes, and less structured, and sometime even cacophonous. There are advantages to this kind of class. I love to be able to tailor a class to the personalities of its students. If I have assigned reading quizzes but realize that I have students who enjoy sharing and debating, I will change the format to discussion and play to their strengths. I also believe that having too much structure and too many rubrics discourages creative thinking and imaginative work. Now, I can appreciate organization, and I recognize the value of rubrics and strict scheduling, and I even understand how some people prefer to learn in quiet, solitary settings. But that is not me. However, my type-A students tend to be frustrated with my flexibility and they do not learn well in a chaotic class. For this reason, I must strive for more organization and structure, even when it goes against my style. This is difficult for me but I know practice will make perfect.

These are the pieces of my classroom baggage that I have come to recognize in the last couple of years and that I am working on. There are many more on the baggage claim carousal that I have not recognized as mine. But I will keep searching myself and my culture and my history because I owe it to my students to recognize that baggage so that I become the best teacher I can…for all of them.