Western Illinois University: Macomb Campus
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English and Journalism
From the desk of Jenny (Kallenbach) Zimmerman, Brown County High School English Teacher
"I am not sure if I will be able to go. I understand that this will be an excellent opportunity, but I am nervous about leaving my kids. I have never left them before, and this would mean leaving them with someone else for three days." This was a conversation I had with my principal a year ago. He was asking me to attend a training session in California and trying to work against my reluctance. I was not worried about leaving my husband for the first time in our marriage. I was not even that worried about flying, which is certainly not my preferred method of travel. I was, however, extremely apprehensive about leaving my kids. By the way, I am not a parent. The kids I was referring to were my 108 high school students.
I cannot pinpoint exactly when they went from being my students to being my kids, but I know that it happened quickly. I had been teaching for only a short time when my husband noticed my possessive tendencies. Apparently I was prone to bragging about the excellent ideas that "my kids" would bring out in their writing and during class discussions. I got upset if "my kids" did poorly on an assignment that I knew they should have been about to complete with a great deal of success. I became nervous if I saw one of "my kids" hanging out with a rough crowd uptown on weekends.
As prospective teachers we are taught to always refer to students as just that - students. I prided myself on not using the word "kids" while I was still in college. It seemed to be such an elementary term. Referring to a teenage high school student as a "kid" would never be acceptable. They are young adults. Calling them kids is just disrespectful. Some of my first students were only four years younger than I was at the time. Who was I to refer to them as kids? However, there I was, calling them kids. I am sure the undergraduate version of me would have a fit about this.
After much consideration, I think I have come to terms with my semantic transformation. They are obviously my students, but that seems too impersonal. They mean more to me than just minds that come into my room for forty-nine minutes each day. I spend my time working desperately to help them succeed. I rejoice in their simple and major successes. I mourn their difficulties and failures.
Thinking of my students as my kids also helps me to navigate that difficult concept of maintaining a professional distance from my students. Maintaining a professional distance does not mean that I do not take an interest in their lives. We frequently talk about what is going on outside of school. However, I make sure that they understand where to draw the line. As their teacher, I care about their well-being and their success, but there are some things they simply should not discuss with me. I let them know when they are getting too close to crossing the line, when they are crossing it, and when they have pole-vaulted across it (some students like to operate in extremes). This helps to remind them that while I am not that much older than they are, I am still their teacher and the authority in the classroom.
Despite my initial reluctance, I did wind up going on the training trip to California. Although it is almost embarrassing to admit, I spent a disproportionate amount of the trip worrying about my kids. Were they behaving? Was the sub teaching the lessons according to the plans I had left? Were my kids okay without me? As was to be expected, my fears were unfounded. Their learning continued in my absence. Even with that knowledge, I still hate it when I have to leave them. What if I miss the day when one of them grasps a difficult concept for the first time? My students are not perfect. Some of them challenge me on a daily basis. However, they are my kids. I just hope that their parents do not mind sharing them with me.
—Jenny Zimmerman, WIU English Education Alumni '07