Why teachers are like mothers

Carmel V. Abao
A Political Science professor shares where teaching and motherhood overlap and enrich one another

MOTHERLY. I simply treat my students in the way that I myself like to be treated — with dignity, with care, and with respect. Graphic by Emil Mercado/Rappler.com

MANILA, Philippines – In the university where I teach, teachers are shown the students’ evaluation of their performance at the end of each school year. Each year, I see markings on my students’ evaluation sheet that say “she’s motherly” and “she’s like a mother.”

I have never thought of myself as “motherly” so this kind of assessment has always been a sort of puzzle to me.  

Moreover, in my mind, I have no rigid stereotype of what a mother should be, although I can’t really imagine a “bad” mother. To me, bad mothers are simply the exception to the rule. So, when students say I am “motherly,” I get the feeling that they are actually complimenting me — but for what exactly, I am not so sure. 

Perhaps they say this because I never raise my voice in class? But I teach Political Science. How can one be motherly while teaching political science? (Oops, there you go, I have a stereotype after all: Political Science and being motherly don’t go together?)

What exactly does “being motherly” mean then? Is it a good thing? 

Personally, I associate “being motherly” with at least two things: being “older” and being “loving.” The question thus is this: as a teacher, is being older and being loving a good thing? I guess there are no cut-and-dried answers to this kind of question, just experiences and insights. 

Here are some of mine: 

On being older

My students are two decades or so younger than me. They can literally be my children. This is probably one reason why they say I am “motherly.” 

I know my students think I am not so old because I have a cellphone and a Facebook account. I also know they think I am old because I don’t have a Twitter or an Instagram account. But then again, this doesn’t really bother me as I am convinced that tweeting (or instagramming — is there such a word?) is not a prerequisite for good teaching or effective communication.  

It is a challenge for older faculty like me, though, to use means of communication that students actually like to use and use often. I have recently been advised by a colleague to let go of Yahoo groups and try Facebook groups. I have done so but with a heavy heart and not without difficulty. 

The upside of being older is having the confidence that one gains as a function of age. The young certainly should and do have a sense of confidence; but when one is older, this sense of confidence is bolstered even further. With age comes experience, and with experience comes greater awareness of the self, of others, and of the broader environment. 

Thus, when I teach, I am very confident that I have something to impart to my students that is valuable — not only because the books say so but because I have had personal knowledge of the validity and power of these ideas. In other words, I am happy that I am old enough to actually share experiences and not just ideas.  

I think I am able to teach my students well about the EDSAs, for example, because I was there in all the EDSAs. The challenge is to keep in mind that none of the students were present during these EDSAs as they were not even born at the time. How indeed does one teach the significance of historical events to students whose realities are so far removed from the social milieu of such events?

In February of this year, some colleagues and I decided to hold a “concert” to commemorate EDSA. We invited artists Noel Cabangon, Jess Santiago, Rody Vera, and Pol Galang to sing “stories” of the martial law era; to sing songs about forced disappearances, US imperialism, hamletting, etc. These songs definitely moved the students more than our lectures did and we hope to do it again next year.  

In this way, teaching is like motherhood: you have to be equipped with stories and you have to get your children to be genuinely interested in what you have to say.  

There are some things, however, that I will never really understand about the young simply because I am not their age. I can never understand, for example, how students these days can multi-task. In fact, students have approached me to forewarn me that they will be surfing the Internet and perhaps even playing games while listening to my lectures — but that I shouldn’t take these personally because this is how they learn. 

My response is often this: “Go ahead, you’re old enough to know how you learn best but make sure you’re actually still ‘with the class’ and remember that I will not hesitate to give you an F when I see that you deserve one.” End of story. 

Still, the multi-tasking of young kids puzzles me no end. I multi-task — all mothers do, perhaps all women my age do — but not in that way. Truth be told, this kind of multi-tasking actually fascinates me. 

The other thing that I have observed of this generation is that they don’t read books, they just read short pieces. The very first time I asked students to submit a book review, I got a letter from one student saying that he couldn’t remember the last time he had to read an entire book and that he was surprised to have enjoyed the process of actually doing so for the course requirement. 

That the young no longer read books bothers me (rather than fascinates me) because personally I know the joy of reading a book from cover to cover and can’t imagine others not being able to experience such joy.    

On being loving

The most worrisome observation I have of students in this generation is that so many are “depressed” clinically. I say “so many” because, during my days in the university, I remember students having anxieties but I don’t recall anyone being depressed. 

Perhaps during those days there were depressed students but it was not something that was talked about.  These days, students actually talk about their depression which is, maybe, a good thing (I am not a psychologist so I can’t really say). Those who do not talk, write — I actually have a compilation of letters from students about their personal predicaments.

I have also gotten around to asking some of them: “Explain to me, can someone your age really get depressed? I can understand being depressed at 40 or being depressed when one is not able to eat 3 times a day. But you are young, you are well provided for, why are you depressed?”  

In most if not in all such instances, the responses always include a focus on “family problems.” I do not know if the rise of clinical depression among the young signals that even the “usual” family problems have changed or gotten worse.

All I know is that this is where the “mother instinct” often kicks in: you find yourself listening intently to your students’ personal sob stories. And, sometimes, you find yourself holding their hand or giving them a pat on the back and telling them, “It’s going to be alright, you’ll see.” 

When one has depressed students or students with special needs, one has to adjust. I had one depressed student, for example, who was always groggy because of her medication and had such difficulty completing written requirements that I decided to give her all oral exams. Another had a reading problem but since he had to submit a book review like everyone else, we decided to be flexible on the deadlines.

I try as much as possible to treat these students in a-matter-of-fact way like I do all my other students but I do make adjustments when I see that I have to. Perhaps this is what being “motherly” means: to be genuinely interested in the lives of students and to care about their well-being and not just about their academic standing.   

There is one other thing that merits the tag “motherly” and I know that I have failed in this: to know your students by name. In a class of 50 or 60, this is quite a challenge. A mother will never forget her children’s names but I can never remember all of my students’ names.

Thus, while I take being called “motherly” by my students a compliment, I am not really sure I deserve it.  Besides, being motherly is not really something that I am conscious of or aspire of becoming. I am very conscious, though, that when I am in the classroom or on campus, I am among fellow human beings.

I simply treat my students in the way that I myself like to be treated — with dignity, with care, and with respect.

I also treat my 5-year-old daughter this way. – Rappler.com


Happy Mother’s Day to all moms! How are you celebrating the day with YOUR mom? Tweet us your pic @rapplerdotcom, use the hash tag #loveyoumom.

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