Embrace Your Inner Nun


When I enrolled at St. Augustine’s Parish school at 5 years old my pops told me “watch out for the nuns.” He said they could be mean, set off by the most minimal of indiscretions. Apparently they carried long rulers during his tenure and smacked pupils’ knuckles if their cursive was below grade. I’d been warned, but guess what? There weren’t any nuns teaching at the Parish school by 1987. Phew!

But there were some ex-nuns. I don’t know what drove those gals from under the habit to civilian teaching life but it hadn’t been a distaste for stern pedagogy. Physical regulation was prohibited, obviously frowned upon. But they didn’t mind filleting you in public anytime for your lack of skills or etiquette. They could be scary.

Ms McKinnon had me stand in the corner facing the wall like Ralphy in Christmas Story when she noticed me eating butterscotch kisses outside lunch hours in first grade. She even divvied them up between the rest of the class while I watched. I didn’t pop any snacks the rest of the year; she ran a tight ship. One morning in my grogginess I put on bright red corded slacks rather than the school uniform’s navy blue. The kids laughed but Ms McKinnon was empathetic - she sent me to the lost and found to find a navy pair to halt cease the distraction. She was a very talented artist but we only saw that once. I don’t think she told a joke that year. She had a singular goal which she achieved: we were good little foot soldiers come June, aligned for the next 8 years.

Ms Madison, in particular, had me shaking before sitting for her sixth grade algebra course. This was in no small part due to the warnings from exiting upperclassmen. Sixth graders can gossip like nobody’s business, and bully to boot. They were right though, she was someone whom to avoid crossing in class or in the halls. “Mister….Martinson….what is that you’re holding?” “Mr Martinson, what is the result for problem number eleven?” “Study harder Mr Martinson if you don’t want to repeat my class!” And I was a sharp student.

Ms Madison harped on everybody consistently. I found it uncomfortable, so I hit the algebra hard for two weeks until I got it. After that, when asked for a solution, I gave the right one, and I received A COMPLIMENT! Not candy, not a pat on the head, and not even my good grade turned out to be as satisfying as a compliment from the scariest teacher I’d ever had. A few compliments later I saw a nod and a smile. Soon it was obvious that she picked me for the new kinds of questions or the more complex questions. My work ethic only doubled. I was working for her approval.

These days I consider Ms McKinnon’s and Ms Madison’s teaching styles often when confronted with teaching scenarios. I taught flight students, I taught martial arts students, I’ve taught dogs, I’m teaching my own kids, and I’ve had hundreds of opportunities to help people learn various life lessons. My style is austere, demanding. If you want my help you have to be motivated to work and to listen. Part of the reason is that I don’t want to waste time teaching someone who reacts emotionally because I don’t have much emotional bandwidth. I respect effort and commitment and I struggle to communicate sympathetically when someone grapples with their self-worth.

It’s not the best way, it’s just my way. I have the most success pushing people to do their best and expecting them to make maximum effort. If I see that there’s a traumatic or emotional conflict blockading that effort or progress, I seek help externally from someone suited to that kind of work. Could I improve at navigating through those kinds of situations? Probably. Maybe I do improve on a very gradual scale. But my strength is in pushing motivated people to do their absolute best, like Ms Madison.

I can comfortably assess society as more sensitive these days. Some will call that a strength - I suppose it depends on the scenario and the participants. When forced to work through a five minute team-building exercise before a conference I feel like I’ve wasted five valuable minutes of learning time. I build team bonds on my own time through authentic, unforced, conversation. That exercise will help more introverted or sensitive learners though. It will encourage them to feel welcome in a room of strangers and to participate comfortably.

There are probably less teachers who are comfortable with a high-pressure low-sensitivity style now than in 1993, just like there weren’t many nuns in habits with active rulers in 1993. In 25 years the median teaching style of today will have been replaced by something different. Will it be more sensitive or more stern? I’m probably in the minority in believing that there is a tipping point for sensitivity. We can’t go convincing children that every fearful concern and moment of self-doubt deserves an intervention and a round table and an action plan. How will they ever learn that self-doubt and fear are surmountable emotions that can be mastered independently? How will they ever get tough? Humans are animals. We exist in an evolutionary pool that rewards strength. Survival requires physical and emotional grit and sometimes being deadly afraid of your math teacher and then learning to work hard despite that fear, earning you the reward of a nod and smile, is so necessary.

It takes all kinds! My compliments to all you teachers of the spectrum - fun, demanding, nerdy, loquacious, sensitive, friendly, authoritative, timid, energetic and all the rest. I’m so glad you embrace and evolve your own teaching style and don’t let anyone convince you it’s the wrong one. Students should learn about humanity from all kinds of humans. Have a great school year!

Here are a few classes related to this topic:

Ike Martinson
Ike is addicted to life in the Pacific Northwest. He enjoys the mountains, the lakes, the food, the people and all the seasons. He is an amateur chef, a commercial pilot and a terrible painter.

Share your thoughts