I always wanted to be a teacher. Sure, I had other career dreams as a child too. I wanted to be a model, because I wanted to be pretty like a model. I wanted to be a flying missionary to please my father—you see, it was not quite enough just to do missions. I also needed “save” (pun intended) people with my daring airplane recuses. And in moments of practical mindedness, I thought I should definitely be a “cleaning lady” (aka a housekeeper), because I was very good at cleaning, which was a way of life and survival in my home. But “teacher” was a persistent calling, so I followed in my teacher-mother’s footsteps AND tried to satisfy paternal aggrandizement by becoming a professor.
It occurred to me recently that I have actually been teaching now for nine years. I’ve also discovered in the last few years that I like teaching. And no, I didn’t always know this. I always wanted to like teaching; and sometimes I was sure that I did indeed like teaching. But non-teaching associated trauma during my early career and my social anxiety also sometimes made (and makes) the process excruciating. (Neo-liberal and late-capitalist academic practice, politics and policy don’t help either.) Part of discovering my love for teaching and moving through my anxiety involved reconsidering my “ideals” of teaching, which were numerous and high minded.
Teaching in a feminist and empowering manner is very important to me. Preparing to teach while in graduate school, I studied feminist and other liberative pedagogical models extensively. Unfortunately, the institution I attended did not offer student teaching opportunities at the time—but regardless, I was determined to learn all I could from the theory available to me.
I once designed an Independent Study course for myself on bell hooks and Paulo Freire’s pedagogy, two of my favorite teachers at the time. Their works are inspiring and emotional to me still. Reading their words affirmed experiences I’d had: education could be painful but you can find yourself in theory; you could “transgress” existent power (Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks) but you might only change a little (Pedagogy of Hope by Paulo Freire); teaching is passionate (hooks) and students are not a bank (Freire). These principles, and so many others, inform my ethical commitments and praxis as a teacher. My experiences and these theories also started to create a “picture” of “who a feminist professor is,” in my mind. But while many of the practical tools and guiding ideals were quite helpful to me, the picture was less so. And I floundered trying to meet an unrealistic ideal.
I fell into sort of an identity trap, making a kind of essential “professor” out of a theoretical (and of course constructivist) “feminist” person. A “good professor” was brilliant, evocative and exciting in the classroom, a kind of physical power, but one who shared power. She walked the delicate line between being authoritarian and giving away too much of her own authority skillfully. Oh—and she wore a lot of rings? For some reason all of the feminist teachers I’d idealized worse a lot of silver rings, to the extent that for years, I have casually looked for silver rings in an attempt to replicate the uniform, though it never quite worked for me. Most importantly though: all of this professor’s students were challenged by and respected her for her wisdom, confidence and grace. I’d felt that way about professors, after all, hadn’t I? All the time? Every day? About all my professors? Maybe not. But based in reality or not, I agonized over this image, tried to performatively recreate myself, “fake it till I made it,” only to realize that after a while I’d lost myself as a teacher while trying to perform being one.
Ironically, trying to be a feminist, I’d failed to “save people with my daring … rescues,” still working to live up to the white-supremacist, colonial and hetero-patriarchal image of mastery and worth with which I’d been raised.
I read an article this past term with my Myth, Religion and Culture class entitled “Would You Rather Be a Cyborg or a Goddess? On Being a Teacher in a Postmodern Century,” by Suzanne K. Damarin (Feminist Teacher, Vol. 8, No. 2, University of Illinois Press, Fall/Winter 1994). I like the piece. It is useful for discussing feminist archetypes that are (unfortunately) pit against one another: the goddess and the cyborg. The author also suggests alternative metaphors that might more accurately account for teachers’ experiences. It’s an older piece now, but still relevant, asking important questions about how “educational literatures… are dominated by technocentric narratives and exhortations of educational technology,” while also asserting that “there is a sense, of course, in which postmodern teachers can no more elect not to be cyborgs, then they can elect to be goddesses” (Damarin, 56).
Anyone who has taught during the COVID pandemic can probably speak to these assertions in one way or another. Is Zoom savior or demon? … I don’t know. Neither? Both? What I do know is that I desperately miss working with students in the classroom. I also know that for the first time in a long time, because there was silence in the room, I could relax enough to just be myself, to hear myself.
So while I find them useful—good tools for inquiry and reflection—I don’t have to be a metaphor or archetype, patriarchal or feminist. I can be myself.
You know who my favorite teachers really are? They are different than my favorite theorists, though theory is a teacher of a sort. My favorite teachers are:
- The high school math teacher who looked shocked when my older brother ran at me from across the quad to knock me over on the ground. When I stood up, laughed and said, “It’s okay. It’s just my brother,” he said “Oh. I was going to beat him up for you.”
- My third-grade long-term substitute teacher who taught me multiplication after my regular teacher took maternity leave. I wasn’t even close to a “multiplication planet” in our class’ solar system which was displayed around the room. I was still on an “addition planet,” behind everyone else. She moved everyone up actually, explaining that we should all be learning multiplication in the third grade.
- My Women’s Studies professor who, when I asked her for reading recommendations about gender-bending in anime said to me, “Maybe you could write about that?”
- My grad school professor who hugged me when I apologized for my inattention in class, explaining that my older brother had kept me in a car with him for hours the night before, threatening to kill himself as soon as I left him alone.
- The English professor who made a silly laugh when he explained really interesting thoughts about monsters in texts. We’d laugh too, not at him, but because it was so cute and such pure joy.
And my mother.
My mother who laughed it off when half the buttons on her skirt came undone in the middle of her class—something she would have been embarrassed by at home.
My mother whose eighth-grade student had a crush on her and asked her to dance with him at his promotion dance the year before she retired.
My mother who taught me to love to teach, even though it’s hard—even though I get lost sometimes. My mother, who loves to teach.
Smart, graceful and human. I always wanted to be a teacher. I am glad that I am. Thank you to my teachers.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.