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They and We: Ways We Talk About Students

One of the most important principles in my pedagogy is respect for students. Students are not a problem to be solved; they are complex human beings whom we are serving through pedagogy. It is not our job to impress upon them our own ways, but rather our job is to support them in becoming who they want to become using the wisdom we have from experience and training.

Lately I’ve been thinking–even in that last paragraph I just wrote–about the ways we talk about students when we talk about students without them present. Notice the division–We and They.

I’ve seen some people talking about the problem of referring to adult students–that is, most college students–as “my kids.” And I agree there’s some problems with saying “kids”, even though I admit I fall into this trap frequently myself. Generally I think it’s meant affectionately, even as I concede that it infantilizes capable adults, but sometimes it’s meant curmudgeonly, as in when you hear faculty complaining “Kids these days can’t…” (spoiler alert: they probably can).

But somewhat more subtle is this we/they distinction–and because it’s more subtle, it’s probably harder to address or solve.

We sit in our offices and plan our lesson plans: “I will have them do…” “They will…” But they don’t get any say in it. And that seems odd. It seems to treat students as servants and we the masters, when in reality we are the servants because our goal is not to improve our situations, but theirs. There’s something oddly colonial about it, as students become the mysterious Other, always “they,” collective and anonymous.

Students are hazy, faceless ghosts in our lesson plans
Photo by Alex Jones via StockSnap

In advice columns, whenever someone asks “How do I get them to understand?” the answer is always “You don’t. You can only control your own behavior.” So why do we, as teachers, behave like we can get them to understand?

I have no solutions or suggestions today. But it seems to me that learning is a collaborative enterprise. We say with ease the old familiar standby, that we learn more from our students than they learn from us. So why do we keep a wall (a desk?) between them and us? Why do we keep linguistic barriers between them and us?

The best solution I have is to see lesson planning as “We will…” but I don’t know how that might work. Perhaps a class in which, at the end of class, the whole class discusses together what the next goals should be?

What would a collaborative pedagogy of “we” not “they” look like?
Photo by Brodie Vissers via StockSnap

But these fancies seem incompatible with the realities of our syllabi, which must be completed absent the students and assume that all classes are interchangeable, and our bureaucracies that our syllabi feed.

How do you think we should be more respectful of students when discussing them when they’re not present? How do we make teaching more collaborative and less authoritarian?

2 thoughts on “They and We: Ways We Talk About Students

  1. Mom teaches 90 year old students in senior centers and calls them her “kids.” I think it is more about the love it is necessary to show our students, akin to parental affection, if we are to meet their needs. I agree it can be a problem to create this divide, but I think it is natural.


  2. Even people like Mom who teach in senior centers call their centenarian students “my kids.” I think it is a byproduct of the almost parental love teaching requires teachers to show to students more than anything sinister. Still, it does divide and shift responsibilities.


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